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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.