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  • Does Gratitude Really Lower Stress?

    gratitude practice

    There’s been a lot of gratitude hype lately. And by lately, I mean the last several years. But does it live up to it’s much exalted reputation? Personally, I think it depends on how you define gratitude, it’s myriad practices, and the expected results. Since I’m writing this, we’re going to use my definition.

    Let’s start by defining what gratitude isn’t. It is not:

    • A panacea – Your world and your life will not suddenly become utopia because you have a gratitude practice.
    • A ticket to enlightenment – While enlightenment would be nice, it’s gonna take a whole lot more than being thankful to bring it about. Many devout &/or hardcore buddhists would argue that even though enlightenment is the ultimate goal of their practice, they know that it is impossible for a human to reach such enlightenment.
    • Non-stop bliss – There’s not a practice in the world that’s gonna give you that. Longtime buddhist Jack Kornfield aptly named one of his books, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry,” and that says it all. As long as you still have to do the laundry and scoop the litter box, as long as you have to deal with blowhard bosses and nosy in-laws, hell as long as you’re a human living on Earth, you just ain’t gonna find a state of non-stop bliss. It’s unrealistic, so stop trying.
    • Denial – A healthy gratitude practice will not have you saying “It’s all good,” like some cultist, no matter what kind of catastrophe hits. It may, however, help you find a way forward out of said catastrophe. Eventually.

    Now lets look at what it is. Gratitude is:

    • Finding a silver lining when there’s one to be found. Even if it’s hidden behind some pretty nasty crud.
    • Being thankful for the truly small things. Like finding-a-penny-on-the-ground kinda small. A penny won’t buy you much but it’s one cent more than you had before and if you find nine more, you’ve got yourself a dime.
    • Choosing to focus on the good things. Sh*t happens and you have to deal with it. But that doesn’t mean you have to roll around in it. Good things happen too. Being grateful is like choosing to roll around in your pile of found pennies instead of the pile of stuff you scooped out of your cat’s litter box.

    Now that we know what we mean by gratitude, we can ask… Does gratitude really lower stress?

    The Short Answer

    Yes. Absolutely!

    The Longer, More Satisfying Answer

    Of course it does. I  mean, how can it not?

    If you’re spending time reviewing the good things that happen, you’re necessarily spending less time ruminating on all the negative, less-than-favorable, or downright crappy things that we encounter and have to deal with on a daily basis. When you don’t focus solely  on the stress it has a way of not affecting you so much.

    If you’re putting your life in perspective by reminding yourself on a daily basis that life has plenty of positives to be grateful for, you’re automatically going to complain less. And since complaining has a way of reinforcing and intensifying your feelings of stress, gratitude is a great way to short-circuit a perpetual stress response.

    Gratitude in Action

    Last July, my husband and I spent a weekend up north attending my high school reunion, visiting family, and checking out many of the Forest Festival activities. It was a spectacular weekend. All the way home we talked about how great it was and how much fun it had been. We hadn’t had a weekend getaway that was that much fun in… maybe ever.

    Then, shortly after getting home, my husband asked me if I’d brought in our hanging clothes. My stomach dropped. Not only had I not brought them into the house, I didn’t remember either one of us putting them in the car when we checked out of the hotel. A quick check of the car told us that I was right.

    I immediately called the hotel and asked if housekeeping had found our clothes when they cleaned our room. The desk clerk said that there were no notes indicating that they’d been found. I wanted to cry. Many of the clothes were brand new; as in worn-for-the-first-time-that-weekend new.

    We were sooooo bummed, but we kept telling ourselves that losing the clothes didn’t negate the rest of the weekend. That was true. And we were still truly grateful for the rest of the weekend. We began to write out each thing we were grateful for and each of the good things that happened to us that weekend on separate slips of paper. We talked about them as we wrote them out. When all was said and done, my hands were full of these papers. It really HAD been a great weekend. We put the papers in our good things/gratitude jar and went to bed.

    The next morning my mood had improved enough that I decided to try the hotel again and talk to someone else, a manager perhaps. No sooner had I given the person who answered my name and room number, they told me they had our clothes. I was elated! They had our clothes!! I’m pretty sure I did a literal happy dance as soon as I got off the phone. Then I wrote it out on a slip of paper and put it in the gratitude jar.

    Now, I’m not saying that gratitude got our clothes back; that’d be silly. But it did improve my mood (i.e. lower my stress) enough that I was able to call the hotel a second time, which allowed me to find out that they did, indeed, have our clothes. WooHoo. That alone was worth the time and effort I’ve spent cultivating a gratitude practice over the years.

    Now it’s your turn.Is there a time that gratitude helped lower your stress level, even a little bit? If so, tell me about it in the comments below.

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