Much has made about the effectiveness of exercising your gratitude muscle. The health benefits of gratitude are broad and often begin with lowered stress, stronger relationships, and more energy. But how we practice this exercise, and make it part of our daily lives, is the dilemma. Here are five observations about what gratitude is not and a few tips for training the muscle:
It is not about saying “Thank you.” Those words are so often said that we barely hear them. Gratitude is about a look directly into someone’s eyes, a little crinkle in the eye corners, and a real expression of thanks.
It does not have to be only about others. Of course, you are grateful when someone helps you out of a jam—but most of us don’t need to practice that feeling. Gratitude for what you have, who you are, and what you can do for the world is the first step in projecting appreciation for others. It’s also a critical step in living a productive life.
It is not about not being critical. A discerning mind with a push for excellence is what it takes to reject the status quo and improve the world. The key is to provide critical suggestions and helpful assistance while also enhancing other people’s views of themselves. Empowerment starts and ends with appreciation.
It is not about allowing yourself to be a victim. When you are taken advantage of because you need to keep a job, or resigned to the superficial stability of an abusive relationship, you are not practicing gratitude. This is compromise—or, worse, victimhood. In this case, gratitude must be part of your fortitude and confidence in your plans for escape.
It is not dependent upon being happy. Happiness is rarely constant; it fluctuates. So although happiness is a fantastic goal, gratitude for the tools that will get you there is more important.
So: How do we train the gratitude muscle so that gratitude is our dominant personal theme?
First of all, every day that you exercise your body—which should be at least 30 minutes per day, seven days a week—create a specific gratitude theme to focus on while exercising. Whether it is the bulging of your muscles, inhaling fresh air, or the sweat on your brow; focus on how proud you are to express your athleticism. Gratitude for our body’s remarkable physiology is available to us each day, yet is surprisingly neglected—or even demeaned.
Second, with the first breath you take in the morning, thank your lucky stars you have that breath. Then, for one minute, practice deep breathing into all three compartments of your lungs. Begin with the deep base by your diaphragm, then the middle of your chest. Finally, take three short topping-off breaths to fill the area above your clavicles. You will be surprised by how taking just 60 seconds to practice deep breathing before leaving your bed can be as effective as many other (often skipped) meditation practices.
Third, think with your brain and speak with your heart. We have been taught to be quick-tongued, with rapid cerebral responses to a wide variety of problems. The fast-talking, super-smart tech entrepreneurs of the digital world may have been the superstars of yesterday, but—because their brains ruled their worlds—they are objects of derision today. Unlimited free speech is admirable until it hurts someone. So think well, but speak from your heart, and you will find yourself practicing and expressing gratitude in all your interactions.