Flexing the Gratitude Muscle

By Tatiana D. Gray, Ph.D.

 We’re running late for work. Our car needs gas. We received a snarky email from that co-worker. Facebook has gotten so negative. We can’t remember the last good night’s sleep we had. Traffic is outrageous. Why do they cut us off and then immediately slow down? Why? Really, why? Our coffee is still sitting on the counter at home. No one seems to understand how to load the dishwasher.


Our ability to note the negative things in our lives and spend our emotional energy scanning for threats is one of our strongest automatic processes – right up there with breathing and temperature regulation. This propensity seems to be true in all realms of our lives, and our relationships are no exception. It is so easy, so natural, to focus on fault, disappointment, hurt, and frustration. Our partners didn’t respond in the way we wanted, didn’t act in the way we expected, and didn’t communicate in the way we asked. If we simply allow this natural process to evolve, it becomes the lens through which we see the entire world: our life, our work, and our love. 


Our minds work like a muscle. The part that pays exquisite attention to all those things we dislike and fear is exercised daily, often constantly, and without rest. Someone forgot to take the trash out. Flex. Loan rates continue to rise. Flex. A storm is approaching your city. Flex. Your boss asked for a last-minute meeting at the end of the day. Flex. This is what our mind does. It scans, catalogs, and stores all negative and threatening experiences in our lives, of which there is no shortage. So this mind muscle is strong. It is powerful. It is without equal. I imagine it looks something like Dwayne The Rock Johnson.  

the rock.jpg


The other part of our mind, the part that balances out the negative with the positive, the part that recognizes beauty and joy and love and peace in the world is at a distinct disadvantage. We often joke that our ancestors who took the time to smell the flowers ended up getting eaten, so those “appreciation” genes never had a chance to evolve. This part of our mind that is grateful simply doesn’t seem to exercise on its own. Which is truly unfortunate for us, because research finding after research finding notes the benefits of a gratitude practice – on our physical health, our mental health, and our relationship health.  And yet it seems to actually need to be a practice – an intentional effort - like actually lifting weight. At the start, I imagine that the gratitude part of our brain looks something like Olive Oyl. This imbalance seems to be the cognitive processes we inherited, and, now that most of us aren’t facing actual threats to our lives on a daily basis, it has outgrown its usefulness.

Olive oil and popeye.jpg


So what do we do? How can we surmount our own complicated and intricate minds?  We are called to notice the discrepancy between fear-tuned mind and love-tuned mind – and set out to even the scale.


Gratitude is not automatic. It is a practice of mindfulness – intentionally tuning into the present moment, deliberately looking for what soothes and nourishes us, and purposefully taking the time to savor all that is good about it.


This coffee tastes divine. Flex. This food gives me fuel. Flex. I have the means to drive to work. Flex. My dog gave me a sweet snuggle. Flex. My partner sent me a funny text message. Flex. I can communicate with my friends from near and far just with Internet access. Flex. The sun is shining. The leaves are gorgeous. Someone let you merge on the highway. Flex. Flex Flex.



It might feel slightly awkward and uncomfortable at first, just like any new practice. But with time, it does become easier and more natural – and some day you won’t actually have to look for the beauty around you, its abundance will simply be felt in your bones.


This practice is perhaps most powerful with those we hold most dear. It is our nature to take for granted and get caught up on all the little things that drive us crazy in our relationships. But what if we could interrupt this natural flow – defiantly and wholeheartedly rebel for the sake of our own happiness? What if we could change our nature to one of treasuring and getting swept away by all the little things that save us?  If we could notice the depth of wisdom in our partner’s eyes, the healing quality of their hug, the humor that drew us to them in the beginning, the hard work that they do every day as a demonstration of their commitment, the way that they hold your children, or play with your fur-babies, or place their hand on the small of your back when they pass behind you. If we can start to tune in, notice, and savor the love in our lives – then we can start to balance, even over load, the scale so that everything that we do, every moment of this precious life that we experience, is seen as a gift.


And for those with a truly advanced practice, if we are able to put words to these experiences – actually say out loud what we are grateful for, what we appreciate, and what nurtures us  - then not only will we benefit from this new exercise program, but so will everyone around us, especially the loves of our life.  


If we can view gratitude as a discipline, and commit to flexing the muscle over and over and over again – even when it gets heavy, even when we are tired, or hungry, or just plain old not wanting to, then maybe we will not only transform the lens through which we see the world, but the world itself.

7 Tips to Help you Through Your First Thanksgiving with the In-Laws

Here at Arammu, we’re experts in understanding people and their relationships. And since we’re big on being pro-active in your personal and professional relationships, we’re going to begin a blog on a wide variety of topics. We’ll do fun light-hearted lists (like the one below), poignant pieces on love and intimacy, and more scientific posts rooted in empirical studies of the field of Psychology and relationship health. We’ll touch on professional and personal relationships, and anything related to life, love, and work.

Got an idea for a topic? Shoot us a message on Facebook or Twitter.


Me? I’m not the scientist of the group. I’m the plucky comic relief to James’s and Tatiana’s science. Kind of like Beaker to Dr. Bunson Honeydew. Hopefully you get a few helpful nuggets out of this, but mainly, I hope to make you chuckle.

Here we go on the tips:

1) Have a Fall back Topic

In the lead-up to T-Day, spend some time grilling your spouse, in the nicest way possible, about some of the family members that will be attending the festivities. Find out who’s into what, what they do, where they grew up, hobbies, friends, etc. You should know a decent amount already, but dive deeper. That way, when you walk in, you know some places you can turn a conversation if things get…awkward.

Worse case, you can fall back to what Netflix or Amazon show they’re currently binging. Just be careful of dropping a spoiler. Spoiling will likely land you next to the turkey giblets and scraps.

2) Wine, lots and lots of wine.


Don’t show up empty handed, and as long as there isn’t a recovering, or current, alcoholic in the room, wine is a great gift. Remember, white typically goes with turkey, but honestly, wine is wine, no one will turn you away if you bring a heavy red. Our friends at Vanderbilt Wine Merchants say Zinfandel is the safe bet.

It’s always nice to have some wine with dinner, but don’t get sloppy. I repeat - don’t. get. sloppy. You know what people aren’t thankful for? The person who ends up drunk crying on Thanksgiving.

3) Be polite, no one likes ‘that guy’ or ‘gal’

The only thing worse than drunk crying on Thanksgiving is someone who is meeting the extended family for the first time and forgets their manners. Most families want the Brady Bunch Thanksgiving, minus someone breaking their nose on an errant football pass. Help them create that feeling by being on your best behavior.

“Please” and “Thank You” go a long way. Use a napkin, push in your chair, help gramdma or grandpa stand up or sit down. Thanksgiving is such a great opportunity to leave having them all sing your praises for being such and nice and thoughtful person. This one should go without saying, but it’s worth putting in a little extra effort to be consciously kind.

4) If you didn’t cook, make sure you clean


Yes, there’s a mountain of dishes on Thanksgiving. Yes, tryptophan is real (99% of scientists say it’s real). So you’re tired and full and there’s a lot of cleaning but tighten your belt and suck it up. Chances are you’ll get the “thanks so much for offering, but we got it”. Big win for you if that’s the case, but if not, roll those sleeves up and try not to drop the family heirloom serving platter.

5) Take time for the two of you


The holiday season can be draining. Dealing with tons of extended family can also be draining. Take some time to step back, find a quiet corner, and just check in with each other. Ask your Sig-O what they’re thankful for, how the day is going, what the crazy Aunt who trapped them in a conversation was talking about, etc. Check in and decompress.

Sometimes it’s just the recharge you needed, sometimes it lets your partner get something off of their chest, or give you a heads up that someone’s going to bring up something annoying. Think of it like going back into the locker room at halftime, chatting about the 1st half, and preparing a gameplan for the 2nd half.

6) Tough Convo Topics

If you’re engaged, everyone’s going to ask about wedding prep. This can be a stressful topic. Married already? Be prepared for the “when are we seeing grandkids?” convo. Someone getting super political? Got a sketchy past someone’s asking questions about?

Being able to gracefully deflect or evade a potential conversational landmine is a must. That’s a topic better broached when you have a handful of holiday dinners under your belt with the new group. As such, my advice is simple. AVOID! Don’t stir the pot, just politely deflect and re-target.

What does the mean specifically? Someone starts talking about the healthcare debate, rather than engage, spin the conversation about someone you know who’s a nurse or doctor, or in the medical field, or share the story about the last time you had to go to the hospital. Worse case, find some sort of common ground, such as, “no matter your politics, premium prices are so high”. When all else fails, just say “Canada!”.

7) Find the elder-statesman and make nice


Want to really make a good first impression? Find the oldest matriarch or patriarch of the family and sit down and talk to them. Ask them their life story. Nothing will make them more proud than to share their early life and how they helped create such a large, and loving family that surrounds them today. Seeing one’s offspring, and their offsprings’ offspring all in one place is one of the greatest sources of pride for people.

Also, you’ll learn a ton of really interesting stuff about your Sig-O’s family history and probably a few things they didn’t even know. You MIGHT have to fix their phone for them, but it’ll be worth it. Again, it makes a great impression if your in-laws see you genuinely caring and speaking to the eldest in the room.