How was 2013? Did you lose a loved one? Experienced the death of a close friend? Suffered a physical setback? Financial crises? Delayed retirement? Conflicts with family member? Why am I mentioning these negatives instead of highlighting the positives? Because even negatives, you would be best served by nurturing a sense of gratitude. Just think of all of the billions of humans, now long since dead, who would change places with you in a heartbeat. You are alive. You have the chance to enjoy the present. You have the chance for a better tomorrow. Can you really ask for more? Come on, you already have the miracle of life. So, try slipping on that sense of gratitude. You may find that it transports you to unexpected places.
Psychologists will tell you that there is value in “taking in the good.” Neurologists will tell you how neurons that fire together, wire together. What does that mean? Well, first let me give you an example. Tiger Woods was recently interviewed on his visit, years ago, with Nelson Mandela. Tiger Woods claimed that he felt a special energy in his presence. He will also tell you that he learned something unexpected during his chat with the South Africa President. Tiger Woods asked him why he folded the newspaper so slowly. Nelson Mandela explained that after years of incarceration, you learn the advantage of slowing down time. What does that mean? It means there is an advantage in pausing to relish the small daily activities in one’s life. It means too many of us rush through the day without enjoying the moments, even the insignificant moments.
What is the advantage of pausing to appreciate those individual moments? What is the benefit of nurturing a sense of gratitude? The positive result is both neurologic and psychologic. Let’s start with the neurologic. More and more studies are showing the neuroplasticity of the brain. How your thoughts, feelings, and behavior change the neurochemistry in the brain. When you pause with a sense of appreciation, your neurons fire, leading to a change in brain waves, blood flow, and nutrient transport. A sense of gratitude translates into positive chemicals – chemicals that help the brain (and the body) function at a healthier level. The reverse is true for negative chemicals or those chemicals created during moments of stress or crisis. Those negative chemicals cause the brain to function at an unhealthy level.
Do you want to avoid cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and those chronic illnesses? Yes, your eating style and your daily level of exercise will play crucial roles in your risk factors. But your health is also shaped – much more than you realize – by your perspective on life and specifically by your level of gratitude toward life. You can’t measure gratitude. However, you can measure (and researchers have measured) the number of positive thoughts versus the number of negative thoughts. Or the number of positive words versus the number of negative words. People who experience more positive thoughts than negative thoughts, or who use more positive words than negative words, have better neurochemistry and better overall health. Too small to be a factor? Think again. You have around 60,000 thoughts per day and you speak around 9,000 – 12,000 words per day. They matter.
Let’s pretend that your health is chronic and baseline, unlikely to change. Then what about your mood? For most people mood is always fluctuating. Too many people go through life with a lower mood and a decreased level of vitality. Changing your perspective and nurturing a sense of gratitude can lift your mood and your energy. Try focusing on the good things and the good moments in your life, no matter how small or insignificant. Do you know how people recover from trauma? There are many paths back to normalcy and stability, but a shift in your cognitive focus to the positive aspects of life is one of those paths. You might not be able to stop the rain. However, you can pause to appreciate the beauty of the rainfall. And the benefit of the rainfall. That helps the healing process.
We all live life from the inside out. As you think, so shall you be. Happiness is not an acquisition; it is a skill. Building that skill starts with learning to shift your mental state in a more positive direction. That requires the development of the right habits. As Aristotle said, “Excellence is not an act; it is a habit.” What are the right mental habits? More responsive (accepting) thinking and less reactive (judgmental) thinking. A more positive outlook. Reduced useless worry. A greater focus on the good moments. An enhanced appreciation (with a sense of gratitude) of those moments. An improved attitude. Pausing to take in the good. Thinking about what you want (not what you do not want). Guess what? All of those features give you a greater chance for happiness today and a better future tomorrow.
As you close this year, let’s aim for ending on a high note. Over the final days of 2013 how about pausing a bit more often? How about catching yourself when thinking of something negative and forcing yourself to focus on something positive? How about stopping yourself when discussing something that you do not want to happen? The more you think and talk about something, the higher the likelihood that it will happen. You know those studies, right? So, stop those negative habits that derail your happiness. Nurture those positive habits that enhance your life. There are no barriers to your success. Why? Because those habits are under your control. Is someone else stopping you from nurturing more gratitude? No. It is only yourself. The world sets up enough barriers. It does not need one more – you. So, change. Grow. Improve. And be grateful for as much as possible. Now, that is something to celebrate, yes?