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The Art of Gratitude and the Barriers to Being Your Best Self

From All Saints’ College Psychologist, Ainsley Harmsen

One of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, Robert Emmons, suggests that gratitude has two key components. Firstly, it is affirmation – the process of affirming the gifts and benefits we have been lucky enough to receive. The second component involves acknowledging that other people or higher powers have given us these gifts, big and small, to help us experience the good things in our lives.

Learning affirmation and acknowledgment is a meaningful first step because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by others. It means we are not only appreciating gifts but also paying them forward.

Why Practise the Art of Gratitude?

So why is practising gratitude so important? Many studies show a strong correlation between people who identified feeling grateful and the significant social, physical and psychological benefits in their lives.

Formally, teaching gratitude has been shown to:

·       Increase a person’s general level of happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction.

·       Increase positive emotions which leads to a decrease in anxiety and depression.

·       Strengthen the immune system, leading to improved physical health.

·       Improve sleep quality and quantity.

·       Promote forgiveness.

·       Help people feel closer and more connected to friends and family.

·       Provide an increased sense of meaning in life.

There are also benefits to others as these people are interacting with a happier and more positive friend, relative or work colleague.

However, there can be barriers to practising gratitude and the most significant factor is adaptation.

Barriers: Adaptation

Humans have had to learn to adapt over thousands of years for survival and it has served as an important coping strategy when we are faced with negative life experiences.

For example, if a person loses a leg in an accident, they must be able to adapt to their new circumstances to create a happy future. In this case, the ability to adapt is essential.

When we flip this concept of adaptation and apply it to positive life experiences, the result is very different. For example, imagine checking in at a hotel and being told your room has been upgraded and you will now have stunning river views, a spa suite and access to the top floor lounge for free pre-dinner drinks and canapes every night. You feel very lucky. However, while you’re waiting for the upgrade to be confirmed, you are informed by staff that the room has already been given to someone else. You will be staying in the original room you booked. Very quickly, you feel disappointed and frustrated, even though you never expected anything different just 10 minutes ago.

This happens with longer-standing benefits in our lives too. Flying on a plane is a miracle and yet people complain about bad flights all the time. Long queues, wait times for boarding, the food, the lack of a television screen and so on. We are quick to forget that our ancestors travelled on ships for many days and weeks to get to their destinations and never had any of these luxuries to keep them occupied.

This is the impact of adaptation and why it can be a barrier to gratitude. Something exciting and new today quickly becomes tomorrow’s necessity and when we don’t have it, we are upset. When we do have it, we often take it for granted.

Barriers: Entitlement and Resentment

Gratitude has two direct opposites: entitlement and resentment. When we feel entitled to something, we do not express gratitude for fortunes and blessings because we believe we deserve them to begin with. Equally so, when we fail to appreciate the multiple blessings and fortunes we have because we are comparing our blessings to others and wishing we had more, this is when resentment becomes prevalent.

You only need to step out in nature for five minutes and have a good look around to see the beauty and feel the calming effects. Researchers have proven that staring into nature for five minutes has a significantly greater calming effect on our mood than staring at a building for the same amount of time. It has even been found that those who live around parklands are less stressed than those who live in high density areas surrounded by buildings.

Take a few moments each day to recognise and appreciate the things in your life for which you are grateful. You may be surprised at how much others in our lives, whether family, friends, strangers or higher powers, are all working quietly in the background to ensure our lives are richer and more fulfilling.


The Pursuit of Pleasure

People tend to seek pleasure in either materialistic possessions or experiences. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeking material gratification because it is instant and tangible. However, when people are on their deathbed, they may not regret the fact they have not accumulated enough material possessions, but they may regret that they have not had enough life experiences or been as kind to family, friends or strangers as they could have.

Let’s consider the concept of a ‘Bucket List’ and its intention to add value to your life. The universally understood concept is to achieve increased satisfaction as you continue to check the items off your list. However, research suggests a different story.

Instead of making us feel better about ourselves after we experience something or gain an achievement on our Bucket List, our expectations reset almost immediately. The emotional high we gain lasts only a short time and is quickly followed by a desire for more experiences, material possessions or achievements until we become overwhelmed by a never-ending list. How do we combat the angst this can cause? Try shifting your attention to quality over quantity. Instead of adding more and more aspects to your life, focus on the elements you truly value and practise being grateful for these things. Savour your experiences and take the time to truly reflect upon and appreciate them before rushing ahead.

Experiences can come and go in a flash, depending on what they are but reflecting, remembering and being grateful for them can provide you with more enduring satisfaction and happiness.


The Art of Human Connection

You may question why it is that enjoyment of experiences is more enduring than the accumulation of material possessions. This is because experiences connect us with other people. Experiences add dimension to our social connection and are thus longer lasting.

For example, if two people are talking and find they both drive the same car, they may talk about that and feel slightly closer. If the same two people realise they holidayed in the same place, attended the same university or went to the same concert, they will talk to each other for longer and feel more connected. This has been proven through experimental research.

People are the sum of their life experiences which is why they are more enduring. The car you drive or the clothes you wear may portray something about you but they do not say much about what kind of a person you are or how kindly you treat others.

Another way to deepen connections and practise gratitude is to start looking for small and free ways to help others. You could start by doing something simple such as letting someone in or out of a carpark. Everyone is busy in the mornings and by acknowledging others are too, you can begin to feel more connected to others and happier within yourself. You will know you helped make someone’s day a little easier, even for just a moment in time.

The Art of Gratitude

While there is no easy or immediate fix to break all gratitude barriers, it is an art well worth taking the time to master. Much like an painter, practise, persistence and perseverance is needed to create a work of art.

By learning and choosing to pursue a more gratuitous life, you will have completed the first stroke of paint on your canvas. Being aware of the barriers that are holding you back is another stroke, and so on.

How will you start practising gratitude? Let’s start today.