When it comes to gratitude, we’re working against biology.
The human brain, after all, wasn’t built to withstand the daily onslaught of texts, calls, news, and social media. It evolved to deal with a more primitive state of affairs: hunting, gathering, and, above all, surviving.
As a result, we’re not wired to appreciate the morning dew that collects on the grass or the fact that we have food in our fridge or that thing we do each day called a job that pays us money.
Instead, we’re wired for the very opposite of this experience. Our brain’s natural state isn’t gratitude but vigilance, anxiety, and worst-case scenario thinking.
Neuroscientists have a name for this. They call it the “negativity bias” of the brain. It stems from the fact that, as neuroscientist Rick Hanson puts it, the brain is “Like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Traumatic experiences – car accidents, heart breaks, or intense fear – carve deep grooves in the neural structures of the brain. Meanwhile, positive experiences – an amazing vacation, a captivating conversation, or a win at work – tend to have only fleeting effects on our happiness.
So gratitude represents a radical shift out of our default wiring. It’s a mental 180 that holds the power to radically reshape our experience of all areas of life. This idea isn’t based on celebrity tweets or Hallmark messages about the power of gratitude. It’s grounded on a vast body of scientific research.
Over the last thirty years, scientists have learned that a simple daily practice of gratitude cultivates the following benefits:
Increase optimism – Gratitude practice increases the experience of positive emotions.
Reduce stress and anxiety – In studies following the September 11th attacks, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that the practice of gratitude diminished the intensity and frequency of traumatic memories.
Enhanced physical health – Gratitude improves cardiovascular health and enhances sleep quality.
Improved relationships – Gratitude within relationships can create a kind of “upward spiral,” where one person’s appreciation leads the other to respond in kind.
The case for practicing gratitude seems obvious. There’s just one problem. We’re often too busy with social commitments, digital distraction, family logistics, and work to remember to do it. And when it comes to work, the source of much of our stress and exhaustion, we rarely if ever slow down to appreciate our current role, the fruits of years of labor, or the fact that we have a job at all.
So how can we interrupt this irresistible momentum of biology, distraction, and stress that keeps us from tasting the benefits of gratitude?
Consider three tools.
Tool 1: Build a Daily Ritual
The best way to begin practicing gratitude is to turn it into an automatic habit. This is the beauty of habits. Once you weave a practice like this into the fabric of your everyday life, you no longer have to remember to do it. It just sort of happens, without any thought or initiative.
How do you do that? Consider using meals as your gratitude cue. Each time you sit down for dinner, for example, go around the table and share one thing you are grateful for. If you live alone, write down one thing that you are grateful for. Use this simple practice as a way to begin building a new momentum of gratitude in your life.
Tool 2: The Gratitude Start
Have you ever started a workday feeling irritation, anxiety, or dread? I certainly have. And it turns out that the way you start your workday is like planting a seed. This mindset grows throughout the day, often into ever greater forms of stress and negative emotion.
So see what happens when you start your work day with one moment of gratitude. As you sit down at your desk, think of or write down one thing that you are grateful for. Then take just 10 to 15 seconds to savor the shift in your mind that occurs. This moment of savoring is key. It’s how you can turn the Teflon of your mind into Velcro, how you can remember these moments of gratitude.
If you have trouble remembering this habit, try putting a sticky note on your monitor that says, “Gratitude” or setting up a daily repeating calendar invite to “Gratitude.”
Tool 3: Appreciation
You can think of appreciation as gratitude directed outward. If we’re being honest with ourselves, when it comes to our relationships at home and at work, we’re often anything but grateful. And, as a result, instead of communicating our appreciation, we communicate criticism, frustration, and irritation.
So see what happens when you flip this ordinary mindset upside-down. Instead of looking for all the things that your friends, family, and co-workers are doing wrong, look for the things they’re doing right, for all the ways in which they are contributing.
Then – and here’s the key move – tell them about it. Give them the gift of a specific appreciation. The word “specific” is important. It’s one thing to say to your co-worker, “Nice job.” It’s another to say, “Hey Sam, I could really see how much work and preparation went into that presentation. It was amazing! It left me seeing our strategy in a whole new way.”
If you can’t build all three of these tools into your day, then choose at least one. See what happens when you interrupt the modern momentum of busyness and stress. See what happens when you work against the “negativity bias” of your mind.
You never know, this simple shift to gratitude might change your experience of family, friends, and even your career.