Six months ago, when Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, it is likely that most of us acknowledged the blessings of a good life. At the midway mark, I ask you, how often have you expressed gratitude since then? According to a 2011 Harvard Mental Health Letter, people who routinely express gratitude sleep better, go to the doctor less often and show less depressive symptoms. It is amazing how many positive correlates there are to gratitude. So many, in fact, that you’d think we’d all be chasing after it all the time. So why aren’t we?
I would like to help you consider cultivating gratitude with a novel approach. In the paper “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry,” social scientists Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich assert that most of us are missing a vital component of gratitude – the aptly named “invisibles.”
But first, what are the headwinds and tailwinds? The concept should be familiar to anyone who runs or cycles for exercise. The headwind is what is blowing in your face, making your exercise exceedingly difficult. You are aware of it and look forward to the course changing direction, so that the wind is at your back. When this tailwind finally comes, we briefly notice and quickly adapt to the new situation. The tailwind becomes invisible because we adjust to it so quickly and come to expect it.
This headwind/tailwind asymmetry mirrors life. When life gets hard, we have to pay attention to the barriers in front of us because we have to get over them or get around them in some way to overcome them. These headwinds are the enemies of gratitude. They force us to forget about what is good or stop paying attention to those things or people that are boosting us along.
Gilovich and Davidai argue that as we most often affirm our gratitude for good fortune and family (which is important), we are missing the entire spectrum of gratitude. We mostly fail to appreciate all the things that make our lives the envy of the rest of the world. Have you stopped to consider how we are so blessed to be born during this time period? To live in a country not torn apart by civil war? To enjoy unrestricted internet? How about having electricity, central air conditioning and burgeoning medical breakthroughs? We live in a society that allows us to practice our religion and to enjoy theater, sporting events, museums and poetry readings. These are the invisibles.
When was the last time you sat down with a good book in a comfortable chair and thought, “Wow, I am so lucky!” Gratitude is the work you do now to pave the inevitable bump in the road. It allows you to gain perspective to answer the question, “Why is my life so hard?”
Think of gratitude as the reciprocal of the advanced directive, the plan that ensures your wishes are carried out in the event that you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself. This gratitude directive is your ability to control how you see the world when you are presented with the hurdles that you could never predict or control. You can’t grant this to anyone. It is only you who can express this acknowledgment of the tailwinds that boost you along.
Ultimately, this ability to acknowledge what elevates our spirits allows us to better connect to something larger than ourselves as individuals. If gratitude can help us connect to other people, nature or a higher power, why not do it routinely by next Thanksgiving?
Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis:
Write a thank-you note: You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver it and read it in person if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.
Thank someone mentally: No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.
Keep a gratitude journal: Make it a habit to write down or share with loved ones thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.
Count your blessings: Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings, reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for.
Pray: People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
Meditate: Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment.
Bob Roth is the managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions in Phoenix.