Practicing Gratitude

Practicing gratitude. Remember that phrase for a moment.

Have you ever seen the movie Life Is Beautiful? It’s a story about a man and his family, living happily in 1930s Italy, at the height of WWII. When German forces occupy their land, the man and his family, who are Jewish, are taken to a concentration camp. Their little boy stays with his father but is separated from his mother, who must go to the women’s side of the camp. It’s heart-wrenching and utterly awful. How could the title of this movie possibly be Life Is Beautiful?

To protect his son from the horror of what is happening around them, the man convinces his 5-year-old son that their time in the camp is merely a game and that the grand prize for winning is a tank. The son buys the story. I won’t give away what happens next because you should really see it for yourself, but what I will say is that the father, in the midst of the most unthinkable horror, finds a way to make life beautiful for his son. He pursues joy and grateful living instead of fear. Make no mistake: He is NOT grateful for what is happening around him. Rather, he is choosing to be present in life, to create beautiful moments, and be grateful for them — even in a place so determined to destroy anything good.

Thankfully, no one reading this will likely ever experience such a horrific set of circumstances. But what this movie teaches us about the practice of gratitude is important. It’s impossible to be grateful for everything that’s happening around you, but it’s life-building to continually seek out the good and be grateful for the beauty that you find.

Within a few days, we’ll gather alongside family and friends at the Thanksgiving table and, hopefully, say a few words about what we’re grateful for this year. Gratitude comes easily on Thanksgiving Day. But expressing gratitude shouldn’t just be a once-a-year event. I don’t say that just to be sentimental or just wishful for greater happiness (because expressing gratitude makes you feel so good). I say it because science says it’s important.  A growing body of research concludes that the secret to greater lifelong happiness and well-being, not to mention success in business, is cultivating gratitude on a daily basis.

The research is astounding. Practicing gratitude — something as simple as writing down what you’re thankful for 3 weeks straight — increases your level of optimism with long-lasting effects. Gratitude increases willpower, keeps you calm, and can even boost employee morale. You see, when we pay attention to the good things in life, powerful changes happen to our brains, changes in brain activity that scientists can actually see on a scanner. ‘Profound’ and ‘long-lasting’ neural effects are noted. In other words, it’s provable that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset. It’s like a muscle: The more your work it, the stronger it gets, and the easier it becomes to work it in the future. To put it another way, practicing gratitude seems to kick off a healthful, self-perpetuating cycle in your brain — counting your blessings now makes it easier to notice and count them later. And the more good you see in your life, the happier and more successful you’re likely to be.

But you’re busy. I get it. Entrepreneurs always are. So don’t make this bigger than it has to be. Last year, I outlined some really simple tips on getting started building the practice of gratitude in your own life and business. A simple notebook can act as a gratitude journal, a quick email to a colleague expressing thanks, a handwritten thank you note…they all work. Keep it simple and focus on the sentiment, not what kind of item you use to express that sentiment.

For gratitude to make a difference in our lives, we need to practice it regularly. By making gratitude a routine, or a practice year round and not only in November, we will reap the benefits and begin to feel more joy.

So look around. What do you have to be grateful for right now?

About Rachel Coughtry

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