Gratitude is a good thing. Everybody from God to Oprah says so. I know this intellectually, but for years I had trouble being really grateful.
I was very thankful– I could rattle off a list of things I was glad about during the holidays. But there was always something a little forced about it. I felt a little guilty for not being really into it. I felt a little shame for not being thankful enough. I was a little superficial with my thanks.
But then I got sick this Spring. And as I was laying in my hospital bed, worried and frustrated about how sick I was, I became truly grateful for something- my health insurance. (Not having this kind of safety net, and the effects it can have on people’s health, is a post for another time.)
I was wearing two of those awful hospital gowns, with a cotton blanket covering me, and my head on a plastic-covered pillow. And my chest was suddenly warm and open and I just felt so grateful that I could have hugged the little piece of paper that said I could have insurance. I rested in that feeling.
What does gratitude have to do with your health? A lot.
Any time we experience an emotion, it exerts changes in our body and brain. Stress and trauma tell our heart, eyes, and kidneys to act more efficiently. Joy opens our blood vessels and brings more nutrients and oxygen to our system. Gratitude does the same thing. I felt a warm sensation in my chest because the molecules activated by feeling grateful sent messages to my chest muscles and blood vessels to open up and bring blood to that area.
This works in the other direction, too. When I was being thankful in a half-assed way, those feelings of guilt and shame were also changing my brain and body- adding to my stress, reducing my immunity, creating ruts of negativity in my neurons, and betraying my spirit. Not great for physical, mental, or spiritual health.
So, here are some tips for really feeling gratitude:
- Look for things that you would really miss were they gone- people, experiences, animals, or objects. Or things you know you couldn’t do without (coffee, reading, mascara, your Mom).
- See what makes your chest warm, or makes you feel like hugging the world. Some days this can be high-minded things like the health of your family. Some days it might be very mundane, like having underwear that fits.
- Keep it simple- one thing is fine. Resting in the feeling of gratitude is what will recharge you- body and spirit. You only need one thing to be grateful about for that to happen.
If you can’t find something, don’t try too hard. Some days gratefulness is elusive. If that’s the case, just notice it and keep on with the day. By remaining neutral, you are giving your body and spirit the gift of authenticity and not actively creating the negative effects from shame or guilt.
Lastly, be willing to be surprised. Now that I’ve gotten to know Gratitude and how it feels in my body, I find that I’m grateful for more than I supposed. It pops up unexpectedly- so grateful for that meeting, or a tasty apple, or holding someone’s hand. I have also become more authentic in my thankfulness- it is underpinned by gratitude now.
What are you grateful for? How did you come to know Gratitude? How does it show up in your body? Let me know…