The Psychology of Gratitude: a Practical Introduction
MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
November is Thanksgiving month, and over at our Chaplaincy blog, For Times Like These, we are running a special series of posts on gratitude. For a doodle story in search of gratitude, try Geoffrey Baines; for gratitude in times of difficulty, try Ali Newell; and for the ultimate practice of gratitude, for the things we did not want, try Harriet Harris’ post from earlier this week.
From me, for our last post in the series, an introduction to the psychology of gratitude - and how to practise it.
The Psychology of Gratitude: a Practical Introduction
When was the last time you paused, and savoured a pleasant moment: really noticing the smell of the breeze blowing off the sea, the warmth of your coffee between chilled hands, or the colour of the winter gorse around Arthur’s Seat?
And when was the last time your mind got stuck in something tricky: an email with an unexpected task, a boomerang memory, or waking in the night, unable to sleep?
Chances are good that for every pleasant thing you notice, your attention is much better at dwelling in what is unpleasant. Psychologist Rick Hanson writes that for good evolutionary reasons, our minds are like Velcro for what is difficult: they hook on, ruminating, problem-solving, trying to make it go away. The difficult therefore looms large in our experience: we simply expend more mental and emotional energy here. But when it comes to lovely or neutral experiences, the mind is like Teflon. The breeze, coffee, or popcorn-scented gorse does not threaten to bite, sting, or chase you, so the mind skates right over it. ‘Nothing to see here,’ it seems to say. ‘What shall I worry about next?’
Fortunately, what we practise gets stronger. The practice of gratitude is currently increasing in popularity, as we seek to train our minds to show up to what is already here – unnoticed, unremarked, but maybe rather lovely. This is the good news about gratitude practice: it does not entail making up things that might happen, but rather, starting to pay attention to what already has.
Gratitude practice, Hanson says, is about ‘turning good facts into good experiences’. Immersed in self-improvement culture, it’s easy to turn gratitude into yet another thing to ‘do’. A gratitude diary can turn into a list of things from the day, scribbled in a rush. Yes, I had dessert at lunch. Yes, I took my walk. But when we ‘do’ gratitude, it becomes a concept. We list things in our lives that we know abstractly are good, and think, ‘I should be grateful for this’. It is an easy step from there to think, ‘but why don’t I feel good about it?’ And particularly if the mind is under stress, you may notice that the emotional tone is quite complex, or even numb, next to the concept of what we are grateful for.
To turn good facts into good experiences, gratitude practice requires mindfulness: bringing gentle, curious attention to embodied experience, as it is. We need to really smell the coffee and its earthy tang, if we are to pause the mind in its usual slither right over it. We need to look at the colours of the autumn leaves on the cherry trees in the Meadows – their yellows, greens, reds, crispy terracotta. And we need to tune into that flicker of pleasure in the chest, when a beloved friend walks into view.
Here, then, are some ways of exploring gratitude with mindfulness.
In the nineteenth century, ‘mindfulness’ was used as a translation for the word ‘sati’, in the ancient Indian language of Pali. ‘Sati’ also means ‘remembering’ – so let’s spend a little time with memory.
You might like to close your eyes for this, or allow your gaze to be soft, somewhere on the floor in front of you. Sense the body sitting: the contact of the soles of the feet with the floor, and the sit-bones on the chair. You might notice the breath, moving gently in the abdomen. Allow your awareness to pool, and settle, in the body.
As you sit here, drop a question into mind, as if you were dropping a pebble into a pond: what was pleasant today?
Notice what comes up, in the ripples on the pond. They could be words, or images in the mind. It could be something very small: a dog you saw on the Meadows, a smile from your flatmate, the cosiness of a scarf; just some moment that flickers into mind at the notion of enjoyment, interest, or pleasure.
Hold this moment gently in mind, allowing it to become clearer, re-inhabiting the memory. What was it like? Tune in to what you saw, felt, touched – the bounding form of the dog, your answering smile at your friend, the warmth and texture of the wool. Recall what happened in the body: maybe some uplift, a sense of energy or lightness. Allow the feeling – pleasure, appreciation – to soak into your awareness. Spend a couple of minutes with the memory in this way, honouring it for what it was.
Tune into your experience right now. What was that practice like? And what do you notice now?
You might like to experiment with doing this at the end of each day, for a few minutes, for a couple of weeks, and see what you discover.
As we practise bringing pleasant memories back into awareness, we are retraining ‘Teflon mind’ so that it becomes easier to recall these experiences. Something else that you may start to find is that your attention tunes more readily into pleasant things, as they are happening.
When you realise that something nice is occurring, take a moment to stay with it. The mind may have already half moved on, so gently bring it back into the experience here and now. What’s it like? What do you feel, and where does that show up in the body?
Interest may appear as a pull in the chest; excitement may straighten and lift the shoulders; pleasure may feel warm, spreading in the stomach. See what you find. Allow your attention to rest in these places, to settle, and soak them up.
Notice your mood, as you step into the next moments of your day. Allow yourself to take the sense of what was lovely with you.
As we attend to what brings us nourishment, we start to notice what it is that we actually enjoy. When we are on autopilot, doing our day, week, and life the way we have always done it, by force of habit we often go to old scripts about what we like and don’t like. We all do certain things because we think we should – someone else expects it of us, or we learned to expect it of ourselves. A friend says, ‘isn’t that great?’ and we nod, mechanically.
Gratitude practice is a chance to see what gives you joy, now. Life, as we live it, is always changing. What nourishes you in the autumnal peri-COVID world of late 2021 may be different from what did before; what piques your interest, or provokes warmth, pleasure, and joy, may surprise you.
So listen to what your gratitude practice reveals. It is already there, waiting to be discovered. That’s the beauty of it.
Warm wishes over this cold weekend,