However, 2019-me found herself in one hell of a mental health dilemma. Having lost what I thought to be the love of my life I found myself searching for something to appreciate just day by day. It wasn’t until I had to pick up my things and move across the country that I realized how much of a hell whole I’ve been in lately, 2019-me realized that unless she changed her thinking, I would lose myself due to a small portion of my existence.
I was two months into living across country, but still feeling sorry for myself. I had a ‘poor me, pour me another’ victim mentality, that was still kicking around, despite the absence of the mentally draining people.
So, when I saw a shout-out on Instagram for a ‘gratitude mantras’, based on the premise that ‘a grateful heart never lacks anything’, I contained the message within me, I had felt a shift in my bone-deep disgruntlement with myself / my life, and the relationships I allowed myself to be in. Here is where I found the possible way. To fight for my fairytale.
The Secret. ( <--- click on find out more about the book)
I began pulling gratitude from the back of my dissatisfied brain everyday, mental rain or shine. Eventually it became second nature for me to change my thinking to focusing only on the things I want not the problems I had.
Here’s what I know…
- You most likely have a negatively-biased brain. Because you have a brain. I interviewed a neuropsychologist who told me there are very fortunate souls out there, who have a ‘joyful amygdala’, but the vast majority of us have a ‘grouchy amygdala’.
This basically means that the emotional response system in our brains (ie. the amygdala) is like a cross between Eeyore, any Jack Nicholson character, and Miranda SATC. Think auto-gloom, pessimism and a lawyer-esque eye for how you could be hoodwinked.
This has evolved to save our skins. It was really useful back in hunter-gatherer days for our brains to yell ‘watch out for that weird berry!’ or ‘she looks angry, appease appease’, but now, not so much. However, we can cheer up even the grouchiest amygdala, and one of the most research-backed ways to do so is: gratitude.
- Gratitudeisn’t just for Hippies and Dogmas. Even I still hard-side-eye articles called ‘The Power of Gratitude’ but I know now; it’s just science. It works. Hundreds of studies show that gratitude is transformative to mental health, and seemingly on a par with exercise for the wellbeing.
Why? Because our brain reacts more passionately to the negative (proven by actual brain scans), and remembers it more. So, think of it more as re-balancing a neuroscientific quirk in the brain. Evening out the negative / positive bias.
- The first step is simply noticing nice things. Our brains outrage at the person who commented something rude, rather than radiating thanks at the person who glorified you via social media. The person who cut us off at that interstate, rather than whoever let us out. And so, the next time you see something joyful (a dog running towards you with unbridled love, a baby smiling back at you), beautiful (street art, a lovely sunset , a bench with a lovely inscription) or someone does something kind, such as holding a door open for you… just clock it. Tick. Noticed. Done.
- Then start recording the day’s kindness, whichever way floats your boat. I like to write, so I fill books with scribbled in nightly thoughts. Play to your strengths. Snap them, record them via voice note, talk about them with your housemate, doodle them, visualize them when you lay down. Simply record them in some way evens out your brain’s default ‘here’s what went wrong today’ setting.
- Keep it snappy. Eight is the magic number, psychologist Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky told me. Research has shown, she said, that any more is overkill.
- Try to find things specific to that very day, as other research shows that re-played, repeated gratitude (‘I love my racing green Mini Cooper’ or ‘I’m grateful for my job’) lose their power alarmingly quickly.
- If you’re having a bad day, that’s OK. Anybody who tells you they feel ‘grateful all the time’ is either in denial, or straight-up lying. Traditional gratitude literature tends to guilt-trip. ‘How very dare you feel less than wondrous, you first world ingrate. Just because we live in the first world, it doesn’t mean we’re disallowed negative emotions. Let the mood roll in and roll out. Numerous studies have shown that suppressing negative emotions doesn’t work, anyhow.
Gratitude took me from being utterly disenchanted with my everyday world, from ‘I’ll be happy when I’m on holiday / promoted / engaged’ malcontent, to how I am now: default content. I still have my resentful ‘life not fair. Hate life’ moments but when I’m feeling underwhelmed, I now have a tool. And that’s gratitude.
Give it a try. All you have to lose is your dissatisfaction.