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Gratitude, Gratitude Practice, The Daily Practice, The Practices

Establishing A Gratitude Practice

November 27, 2015
photo-1428279148693-1cf2163ed67d

Photo by Sebastien Gabriel

Setting out to establish a habit of being grateful may seem a daunting task, when one sees the words “Ten Thousand Days of Gratitude.”  Unlike Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours for mastery, gratitude does not require ten thousand days of practice in order to become habitual or to feel the benefits in one’s life.

In a few days, the mood is increased and the attention begins to focus more on the positive.  Over the course of time, one moves from a daily or weekly practice of reflective appreciation into  “grateful living.”

Just as in winning the London marathon, one doesn’t suddenly decide to accomplish the goal, buy a pair of trainers and run 26 miles in record time.  One builds up with gradual practice and training.  The gratitude journal is the basic building block of training for grateful living.

 

 

The Gratitude Journal 

The Basic Process:

The practice is simple.

Taking some time to reflect on what is good in one’s life and writing this in a journal is what is known as keeping a gratitude journal.  One can keep the journal daily or weekly or at some frequency in between.  One’s journal should be kept at least weekly and should contain at least 3 items for which one is grateful in each entry.

In order to reap the maximum benefits, keep the journal in a deeply reflective way: take the time and space required to deeply feel a sense of appreciation for those things, people and moments that fill the journal.

 

Relaxed Presence and Attention:

To help make the gratitude journal a deeply reflective practice, begin each session by becoming present, attentive and relaxed.  It can be helpful to spend a few minutes to let go of the stresses, worries and strains of the day. By taking this time, one becomes more emotionally and intellectually present and focus and attention is improved.

Begin by getting quiet. Sit with the back straight (but not straining), with feet on the floor or on a pillow, if the feet do not comfortably touch the floor.

With the eyes closed, bring the focus to the breath. Without interrupting or changing the normal breathing pattern, simply witness the pattern.  Observe the air flowing in and out of the nose, chest, and belly. If thoughts or emotions arise, notice that they have arisen, and without judgement, simply return the attention to the breath.

Do this for at least 2 minutes before commencing the journaling session.  Feel free to do those for as long as it takes to become alert and present.

 

 

Building the Habit 

Goals are easier to achieve if our goals are specific, measurable, realistic, achievable and time bound.

 

  • Specific:  Be as specific as possible about why the people or things or moments are meaningful and be as specific as possible on what it is that is appreciated.  Being grateful for the way one’s partner listens, without interrupting or problem solving is more meaningful than being grateful for one’s partner or even the fact that one’s partner is good at listening.
  • Measurement: Efforts can be measured in terms of days of practice against the targeted number of days, or, perhaps more meaningfully, theough a weekly or fortnightly mood check-in at the start of the session.
  • Achievable: There will be good days and bad days.  Some days it will be very difficult to think of three things for which to be grateful. Do the practice, anyway.  Use the aid of some prompts to help activate the gratitude response. An example can be found in our article  “20 Things for Which to be Grateful”
  • Realistic: Be realistic about the time the journal will take and about the other demands on one’s time.  If days are chaotic, perhaps it is wise to begin the day with the journal.  If one morning gets missed, there is the entire day and evening in which to carve out time and catch up that day’s entry.  And, if all else has failed that day, it is possible to complete the journal as a last task before sleeping.  If time is very scarce, consider journaling weekly rather than daily.
  • Time Bound: Set aside a time each day during which to journal.  Try to make this a regular time every day or each week.  At the start of the journey, set a goal of 21 days if journaling on a daily basis and 10 weeks if doing it weekly.  Extend this time as you wish, but begin with a short, time bound period to help maintain motivation.

 

Why Gratitude?

Positive psychologists argue that each of person has an emotional set point which makes it easier for some individuals to be grateful.  Fortunately, practicing gratitude or giving thanks need not be predicated on feeling grateful, although studies indicate that gratitude practice does lead to positive emotions.

In a series of studies, Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami found that the keeping of a weekly gratitude journal led to a decrease in symptoms of physical illness, an increase in life satisfaction and an increase in optimism.   Those who kept a gratitude journal on a daily basis were more likely to help someone else.  Those who regularly practice gratitude report better sleep patterns, suffer less stress related diseases and are more interconnected in their communities.  School children who practiced gratitude for several weeks had noticeable learning improvement, long after the experiment ended.

 

 

 

Achieving the Goal

As in much of life, the point of this practice is not to achieve the goal, but to alter the manner in which one sees the world.  Along the way, one also gains the benefits of the process.   Moving from a goal orientation to making gratitude a habit will take considerably longer than 21 days.  However, considering the benefits experienced, it seems strange to even consider returning to an attitude of entitlement, of taking life for granted and of disconnection from community.

There is no need to make a Ten Thousand Day commitment.

Simply continue to take time to notice the wonder of life and to be grateful.

 

 

 

Articles, Gratitude, Gratitude Practice, The Daily Practice, The Practices

20 Things for Which to be Grateful

November 25, 2015
Photo by Matt Jones

Photo by Matt Jones

Sometimes when we look at the world or at our lives, we see so much that is negative, it is hard to think of anything for which to be grateful. Those who talk about gratitude can sound like saccharin coated nuts.  But, once we start the process of looking for things, people and moments to appreciate, it really does get easier.

When I lived in New York, every year at Thanksgiving, my friends would take turns expressing something for which they were grateful.  I think it is a practice common in many American households. It was never something we had adopted in my home for Canadian Thanksgiving but it was a tradition I loved, immediately.  I know the standard things we all say: family, friends, health, etc.

But if we want to go deeper, or to find different things for which to be grateful, a little reflection may be needed.  There are an infinity of possibilities in our day to day lives but perhaps they get taken for granted in our rush through the day.  When we really look into our lives and take the time to think about everything for which we are deeply thankful, we find so much that brings meaning to our lives.

To prepare for Thanksgiving or to inspire you to start that gratitude journal, I have made a short list of prompts to help you uncover all those things and people and moments you really do appreciate.

Let’s not keep appreciation limited to an annual event! Let us build those muscles for gratitude on a regular basis.  I hope you have fun trying this!

  1. Your favourite place in the city or town you live:  Think about this place.   What does it smell like? What do you see and hear when you are there? How does it make you feel when you are there? Why is that important to you?
  2. Helpful tools and inventions: It might sound banal, but how often do we take for granted the tools that make our lives easier? Our car that gets us from place to place, the coffee maker that creates the elixir of life whilst we shower, the spell check that removes rude misspellings in our memos and emails, and the computer that lets us write our gratitude journal are all worthy of appreciation.  What tools and inventions make your life a little easier?
  3. Your best childhood friend: Whether you are still in touch or not, there was a time when this person was your best friend.  What did you like about them? What sort of things did you do together? How did you feel, being around them? What did you learn from them? Is there something you appreciate about them or about the time you shared that you never told them? Appreciate it now.
  4. Laughter:  This is one of my favourites. What and who makes it possible for you to have a giggle, a chuckle, a belly laugh or to lose control and laugh hysterically?
  5.  Favourite smell or taste experienced recently: Be as specific as possible.  If chocolate is your favourite taste, is it Kit Kat or is it the special dark chocolate Kit Kat you find only at certain retailers? What smells or tastes pleased you, today?
  6. A little luxury: For everyone, the idea of luxury is different, but we can find luxury in the everyday.  Maybe it is a once a week coffee drink at a local café, or the occasional haircut where someone else washes your hair and you relax.  Maybe it is an extra 15 minutes in your warm bed on a cold morning before getting ready for the day.  Where is your little bit of luxury, in life? What makes it possible?
  7. Favourite sound: What is your favourite sound? Maybe it is a band, birdsong at sunrise, or children laughing.  Listen to something you love and see how it makes you feel.
  8. Adventure:  Where do you find adventures, great and small? We don’t have to take a holiday to travel.  Books from the library, films in the cinema, television and the Internet tourist blogs can all take us on adventures.  And, we can take small adventures everyday by speaking to the cute person at the coffee shop who makes us blush and fumble our words.  We can take the bus to a new area of town or go hear a band we have never heard.  We might try cuisine that is foreign, or a wear a colour we think is too bold.  How do you find your adventures? What makes it possible for you to have a little adventure now and then?
  9. Compliments: Think of someone who has paid you a compliment in your life.  How did it feel?
  10. Kindness: We are all recipients of kindness but the key is in noticing when it happens.  Think of the last time someone bought you lunch or a coffee or the last time someone held the door for you.  Has a stranger struck up a conversation with you or offered you directions? Perhaps another register opened at the grocery store and the clerk called you over to be served next.  If you can’t think of a time you received kindness then be kind to another person and appreciate the response that you receive.  Maybe it will take 5 acts of kindness to strangers before someone smiles. Do it anyway. The world needs it.
  11. Romantic Love: This should be self explanatory. But, sometimes, when love ends, it hurts.  No matter how it ended, love always has given us good feelings at some point.  The challenge is to appreciate those moments even in our grief.  I like to call this a beautiful hell. Where was the beauty in that relationship. There you will find something to appreciate.
  12. Other Love: The Greeks had names for various types of love: Eros (see above), Philia (friendship), Ludus (playful love), Agape (a kind of spiritual love for all), Pragma (longstanding mature love), Philautia (self love).  Where in your life do you experience these forms of love as either the lover or the beloved? What and who makes it possible, in your life?
  13. Coziness:  What makes you feel cozy? Who or what allows you to indulge in that coziness in your life?
  14. Vitality:  Most of us lose our youthful energy as time goes on.  What makes you feel alive? Is it the cold wind on your face? Is it hiking to a mountain top? Is it singing loudly to music in the shower or in the car? Is it jumping out of a plane or cresting a loop on a roller coaster or maybe diving to the bottom of the ocean? Is it making it through the Pilates class on Wednesday night and feeling your abdominal muscles ache the next day? What is it that reminds you that you are alive?  Where do you get some of this in your life? What makes that possible?
  15. Timelessness:  Where do you lose track of time? Is it when you draw, or paint or swim? Perhaps you lose track of time photographing wildlife or singing or simply sitting and noticing the breath.  How does it feel to lose track of time?  What makes it possible for you to engage in activities in which you go into flow and lose track of time?
  16. Seasons: What is your favourite part of the season? Why do you like it? What makes it possible for you to have a place and a time to enjoy it?
  17. A cherished memory:  Think of your most cherished memory. Relive it in as much sensory detail as possible.  Who or what made this memory possible, for you?
  18. Sources of strength:  From whom or what do you draw strength when life is difficult?
  19. Absence: We can be grateful for those people and things present in our lives but we can also be grateful for those now absent.  We may be grateful for their absence because they were causing us pain by their presence.  Or, as I tend to practice this one, we may simply be grateful for lost loved ones despite their absence.  One of my favourite toasts is: “To absent friends and family” because it brings them into the here and now, to be with us in our moment of deep thanks, even as we are missing them.
  20. Teachers:  Who has been your greatest teacher and what lessons did you take from them? How has that helped you in your life? Teachers can be either benevolent or difficult people and circumstances in our lives. Sometimes, difficulty is our greatest teacher and finding meaning in our adversity gives us something to appreciate, even from our most difficult and darkest hours.

 

The list is not exhaustive.  I hope you give it a go, and will keep adding to it.  The more we appreciate the small moments, the more we recognise how much we have for which to be grateful.

 

Please help us build on the list! For what are you grateful?

 

Gratitude, Service, The Daily Practice, The Practices

On Service

November 11, 2015
Photo by Lotte Löhr

Photo by Lotte Löhr

The fourth of our daily practices, which arose organically during the first year of daily Gratitude practice, is that of daily Service.

It seems natural that when we feel abundant, our impulse is to “give back” through service.  Indeed, research by Fowler and Christakis revealed that those who were recipients of abundance are statistically more likely to be generous and “give back” to others.

For many, the word “service” is laden with emotional linkages.  For some, it evokes religious connotations, for others, notions of subservience.   Yet, when considering the alternatives, it is arguably the best term for training ourselves in a daily practice of giving.

 

 

What is Service?

Many other words could have been chosen to express the act of giving.  Kindness and charity, are both good words, but we will see that they each have implications, in common parlance that we do not wish to adopt in our practice of daily giving.

One might, in fact, wonder why not simply use the word “giving”?

 

Giving is a word that references the individual who is doing the action.  Inherently, it contains no implication that the gift must be of benefit to the receiver.  Presumably, whatever we give is fine, as long as it is a gift.

However, consider this: how many times have we received an unwanted gift and found it to be, rather than helpful, a burden? It is a burden because we have to express appreciation for something we did not want, because we have to ensure we don’t hurt the feelings of the otherwise well meaning giver, and because we need to devise a manner in which to store, use or dispose of the unwanted gift.  We see this in humanitarian disasters when boxes of unwanted donations clog the transportation systems of aid, and are often useless in solving the most urgent needs of the crisis at hand.

By giving someone something that is unwanted, it is as if we are taking a stance of superiority and saying “I know what is best for you.”

 

Service, on the other hand, is meant to benefit the welfare of another, not to be a burden upon them.  Service implies no superiority but respects the dignity of the one served by taking their needs as the guide for where and how to act.

 

 

The term Charity is a term found in most major religions, and is a virtue to be performed in order to gain the favour of ones God or create karmas.  Any hope for reward, including eternal reward, is transactional.  When we are transacting we are not serving. The two are fundamentally different acts with different interests as their motivation.

Moreover, the concept of charity has often been associated with a sense of pity which stems from a sense of superiority of the giver over the receiver.

 

Service,  is a selfless gift of our time, effort and resources to benefit the welfare of another.  Service implies no superiority and is tied to no particular spiritual tradition, but forms a part of practicing secular ethics.

 

The term kindness describes the quality of being considerate, generous and friendly.  Friendliness implies a social benefit not only to the receiver but also to the giver. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the warm feelings that service engenders, there is always a danger that setting out to be ‘kind’ may include an underlying and self serving motivation to improve our welfare through social connections that make us feel good about ourselves or improves our image in the eyes of the community.

A broader sense of connection, through compassion, often fuels our will to serve, and that service creates positive effects on our social connections which promotes further service.  Any positive impact on our own feelings of social connection as a result of service, must not be the motive for service.

It is possible to conduct acts of service for those with whom we have no relationship or indeed, those who will ever know we have served them. In many traditions, acts of service are conducted anonymously, in order to remove the temptation of expectation of reward through improved social standing.

 

Service can be for the benefit of any sentient being, known, or unknown, of present or future generations and can be for the benefit of the living planet.  Through a recognition of oneness through compassion, service is performed with the humility of knowing that were it not for our own good fortune, we may be the ones in need.

 

Photo by Angelina Litvin

Photo by Angelina Litvin

 

This sense of commonality with the one being served is a kind of oneness which we might call empathy.  When empathy is coupled with a desire to act to alleviate, suffering, this is compassion. the Buddhists call compassion a particular sort of kindness, “loving kindness” (mettā).  This special (loving) kindness  – compassion – is cultivated by the Buddhists to enhance the human preponderance for altruism.

 

Altruism is a good synonym for service except that it implies conditions which can be challenging to sustain on a daily basis, for most individuals.   To be altruistic  is to act to improve another’s welfare, even at risk or cost to ourselves.  Service includes a cost to ourselves of time, effort, or resources, however, altruism describes the most noble forms of service wherein we not only forego benefit, but we are willing to experience personal sacrifice in service to others.

By way of example, when we share our meal with someone who is hungry, this is a cost to ourselves and benefits the other.  This is service. When we forego eating, in order that another who is hungry can eat a meal, that is a personal sacrifice.  That is altruism.

The highest form of service is altruism. Through performing daily acts of service and cultivating compassion, we can train ourselves for altruism.

 

Summing up, we can define Service as the following:
Service is a humble and selfless act of giving, to benefit the welfare of another sentient being, known or unknown to us, of current or future generations, and is ultimately guided by the needs of the one being served.  Service involves a cost, and may involve but is not dependant upon personal sacrifice.

 

 

 

Why Practice Service?

When one experiences abundance, cultivated by gratitude practice, it seems natural to want to share that abundance with others.  One could choose to be selfish and bask in the experience of abundance, but research shows that we adapt to the level of hedonic pleasure received from the things (not the relationships) that fill our lives and our happiness cannot be sustained, all things held constant, without the addition of more “things.”  This generates a never ending cycle of wanting more and more, in order to be happy.   Psychologist Michael Eysenck has termed this adaptation phenomenon “the hedonic treadmill.”

Service as a key to Happiness

What can make for lasting happiness, according to research by positive psychologists, are non material qualities such as fulfilling social relationships, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of meaning in one’s life.  Service generates all of these – for oneself, for the receiver and for the community.

Service not only improves the wellbeing of the receiver, it improves the wellbeing of the community.  Service, by contagion, creates a more generous social circle as those who have benefitted from an act of service, tend to be more grateful and inclined themselves toward service.  And while service can provide meaning to our lives, making us feel fulfilled, often it is those who have benefitted from an act of service that find meaning in their own lives by helping others.

When we focus outside of ourselves through cultivating oneness (through, for instance, compassion) and by giving (though service), we create a loop in which our own and other’s happiness becomes self sustaining.

And it isn’t just individual happiness that is in question. In his talk on Altruism in Monterray, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes why cultivating compassion and service (what he calls: altruism) may be what is needed to save ourselves, our planet and our future generations.

 

 

 

Where do we begin?

Saving the future of mankind is a daunting task for any one of us.  And whilst a life of altruism may be a noble goal to which many of us aspire, for many more of us, it is likely that the idea of daily personal sacrifice is inconceivable.  Through daily service and the cultivation of our capacity for compassion, we can build our capacity for compassion.

 

The service contagion

We need not despair by thinking that we cannot make a difference.   By cultivating compassion and performing daily acts of service, we help to create a more altruistic planet.  Researchers Chistakis and Fowler, conducted a study in Massachusetts and found that among adults, all emotional states and behaviour is contagious.

Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, their findings indicated that negative emotions and behaviour were no more contagious than those that are positive.  Giving (what we call “service”) was found to inspire others to do acts of service to there by a factor of three, meaning that in any network of people, a single act of service could impact on tens or even hundreds of people, some of whom the person conducting that original act of service had never met.

Research by Paul Zak found that service or giving or altruism released chemicals in the brain like oxytocin that make individuals feel good.  This chemical response causes individuals to increase their acts of service in a reward loop that makes an individual more and more inclined to altruism.

Anyone who doubts that a single person can make a difference through service should consider the mathematics of these findings.

 

Cultivating Compassion

Cultivating compassion isn’t just of benefit to mankind and the planet, it benefits each of us in our own lives.  According to the Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, individual benefits include an increased ability to feel compassion for self and others, increased calm and ability to cope with stressful situations, increased ability to cope with feelings of overwhelm, better relationships, better job satisfaction, and a more nurturing and fulfilling family life.

We can cultivate compassion in many ways.  Developmental psychologists Rosenberg, Fabes and Hoffman have found that we can cultivate compassion in children by teaching them lessons through induction and reasoning rather than reward and punishment.  As an adult, loving kindness meditation helps to develop our capacity for compassion.

Being able to increase our compassion muscles great news because according to research by Pearl and Samuel Oliner, compassionate individuals do tend to be more altruistic.

 

Simply Serve and Serve Simply

Daily acts of service need not always be sacrificial acts of altruism.

As long as we act from an attitude of humility, and selflessness and our action is guided by the need of the other, our daily service can have ripple effects within our families, community and world.  Service can be as simple as holding the door for another person, offering directions to lost tourists, offering temporary companionship by striking up a conversation with an elderly person who is alone or simply offering a compassionate smile to a forlorn or grumpy seeming stranger on the tube.  Smiling is contagious and feels good.

Spreading a smile, therefore, is one of the easiest ways to spread good feelings, as we see in this famous Ted Talk by Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap health apps.

 

 

 

 

Gratitude, Joy, The Daily Practice, The Practices

“Practicing” Joy

August 8, 2015

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I have often been asked how one can “practice” Joy. It is either something you feel, or you don’t.

Joy is not always an easy practice. 
As Brene Brown puts it, Joy is the emotion that requires us to be the most vulnerable. Life’s knocks can make it difficult for us to experience joy because we would rather numb our emotions or beat bad fortune to the punch by rehearsing tragedy. But as she reminds us – we cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb the pain of life, we also numb our joy. And, so it is only by going into our pain and being vulnerable enough to experience our anguish are we able to access joy.
 
As we practice and build that emotional muscle, I can promise you that it will be much easier to find and stay in those moments of joy.

Of course, emotions are transitory experiences that result from our thoughts and our circumstances,  but once we are willing to be vulnerable enough to stay present to our sorrows, it is possible to train ourselves to experience more of the positive emotions, including Joy.

Training the emotions:

Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Yoga tend to view emotions as transitory states, attachment to which destroys our peace of mind.  A mindful approach to emotions would involve observing emotions as they arise, without judgement and then returning the attention to the present moment.  Emotions arise from the mind and are a distraction from being in the moment.

The ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali addresses negative emotions and thoughts with the technique of Pratipaksha Bhavana. Pratitpaksha (“opposite/rival”) Bhavana (“thoughts/imaginations) is the technique of replacing negative thoughts with a focus on positive ones. Our thoughts result from deep habits, or what the yogis call “samskaras” and these habits of thought can be changed through this practice of training the mind. By training the mind to focus on positive thought, neurosis can be transcended.

Psychologists would also agree that emotions and thoughts are inter related. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy encourages individuals to track emotions back to the originating thoughts. When emotions are negative, we often find that it is negative catastrophizing, judgemental and pessimistic thinking that has contributed to the emotional state in which we find ourselves. Questioning the validity of our thoughts, looking for evidence, and reframing our thoughts helps to turn our negative, self effacing thoughts into more positive and compassionate thoughts. A change in mood is often the result.

Neither practice is intended to suppress negative emotions. Life happens and sometimes we grieve, sometimes we are angry, sometimes we hurt. In neither practice are we intended to deny or judge the experience. Sometimes a situation warrants sadness or other negative emotions. These practices, however, help us to identify and experience our emotions without becoming awash in them.

On Cultivating Joy

For many people, joy is an emotion that is foreign to us. For whatever reason, in Western society, cynicism and negativity are easier to achieve than joy and bliss. Look at a joyful person and your first thought may be a judgement: “nutter!” With thoughts like this, it is difficult to allow ourselves to experience joy.

So how do we cultivate joy? We begin by practicing gratitude.  And after noticing all the abundance in the world around us, it is easier to progress by being mindful of moments in the day when we experience joy. As I said, in the beginning, there may be none. That’s okay. Start with moments of positive emotions like calm, lightheartedness, or contentment. As we begin to notice and direct our thoughts to the positive, the positive will grow. We may begin with noticing the relief of the first sip of tea when we arrive home after a long day of work. Or, perhaps we delight in the smile of a baby on the tube.

So, rather than practicing joy, we practice training our mind to notice joy. It does not matter how transitory these moments are – all emotions are transitory – but as we focus on the positive, it grows.   If we can increase our ability to be vulnerable and sit in those moments of joy, by practicing gratitude rather than as Brown puts it “rehearsing tragedy”, life will become joyful.

Give it a try. Let us know how you get on.

 

 

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”

– Rumi