Be Bold, Be Thankful: Practice Gratitude

Implementing a daily gratitude practice is one of the best things you can do for yourself. In the past decade, there has been a shift towards mindfulness in popular culture, such as the emergence of yoga gyms, meditation clinics, and sensory deprivation spas. In a world where we are bombarded nonstop, people seek experiences that allow them to block the noise and reconnect with themselves. For instance, adult colouring books have become all the rage in Toronto, with monthly events that provide safe places for reflection.

As a millennial, one of the things that I have noticed is the tendency to pursue pleasure through closed empathy. What does this mean? It means that in a world where work never truly stops, many individuals are unable to cope emotionally or psychologically. As a result, people pursue superficial pleasures (often to the harm of others), as glorified by the partying culture seen on TV. Rather than becoming more human in our times of weakness, people dull out their emotions with things like binge eating.

Why does this matter? My favourite blogger Mark Manson released a post a few days ago called Maybe You Don't Know What Love Is. In it, he talks about how our youth grow up in the coolness economy, where "your coolness balance determines the demand for a relationship with you." Great at basketball and basketball is cool? Then you are cool by proxy and we want to hang out with you.

Unfortunately, these are conditional relationships in which acceptance is dependent on an exchange of benefits that the other party provides. When one of the individuals stops upholding their end of the bargain, the relationship ends. Conditional relationships are unsustainable and toxic. Didn't send me a text every morning? Don't want you. Didn't drive me when I asked you? Don't want you. Didn't wear the outfit I picked? Don't want you. Conditional relationships are not relationships at all. We have become less human.

Knowing this, how do we combat closed empathy? We practice gratitude. Gratitude is the purposeful action of reflecting and conveying thanks to the people, places, and experiences that have made a positive difference in our day. They do not need to be grand gestures; even things like sleeping in for a day can be a cause for celebration. The small things matter.

Why is gratitude so powerful? Research has shown that gratitude has been linked to better physical well-being and better mental well-being, such as more sleep, less aches, lower stress, higher empathy, and greater happiness. Furthermore, our bodies still have the reptilian brain, the part that is hypersensitive to negative stimuli. Back when our ancestors lived their days on a do-or-die basis (e.g. like getting eaten by a mountain lion), this fight-or-flight response was helpful.

Unfortunately, this reptilian brain skews our emotional processing of events. For instance, to counteract the impact of a negative event, we need four to six positive events. This minimum 4:1 ratio for positive to negative feedback spans across domains, such as work and marriage. Therefore, a daily gratitude practice allows us to reset, to become more aware of the many good things in our lives.

What does a daily gratitude practice look like? There is no single way of practicing gratitude; you need to experiment and find what works for you. For me, my mind is clearest in the morning, before the emails and texts come in. When I have great ideas, I think best with paper and pen. I keep themed journals for different areas of my life: career, fitness, gratitude, and self-growth. For my gratitude practice, I currently use The Five-Minute Journal, as seen by my entry this morning:

Think it's too much work? Wonder if it'll make a difference? Case in point: In one of my previous classes, I implemented a weekly gratitude practice with my students. Initially, they struggled to come up with ideas, often asking me what to write. It was an unfamiliar territory for them.

Months later, I could not be a prouder teacher. My students were more resilient and thoughtful than ever. They celebrated everything from buying video games to spending time with friends. This empathy allowed them to feel better about themselves and to empower those around them. They gained perspective, by being thankful for food, shelter, and education, things that are often taken for granted. Gratitude gave them the strength and maturity to reflect on their actions and to ask for help when necessary. It gave them a voice they did not know they had, and to spread that goodwill to others.

How can gratitude change your life?