Research shows that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with a greater sense of happiness and well-being. Science tells us that counting our blessings increases our optimism, relieves depression, improves immune function, and lowers blood pressure. It also strengthens our relationships with those around us.
If feeling appreciative for acts of kindness, glimpses of beauty, and the people and experiences that bring joy to our lives makes us happier, then why reserve it for just one day of the year, as Americans typically do with Thanksgiving? In our book, that’s motivation enough to start a regular gratitude meditation practice. Who, what, and where fills you with a sense of gratitude?
Keeping a gratitude journal (notebook or app), is one way to regularly take note of and cultivate increased appreciation and happiness about those people, things and experiences we’re grateful for. Gratitude meditation is another way to express and cultivate this appreciation. Who, what, and where fills you with a sense of gratitude?
Gratitude meditation is simply the practice of reflecting on the things in our lives we’re grateful for. It’s about experiencing that feeling of appreciation, whether for a loving family member or friend, a beautiful sunny day, or the pleasure of a good cup of coffee. It can be for things large or small, tangible or intangible — perhaps a successful recovery from an injury or illness, or a tough life lesson you weathered, where you came out the other side stronger and more confident.
It’s easy to get caught up in current events and the negativity of the news cycle, but in fact those things often have little to do with who we are and how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis. A grateful meditation is not about becoming desensitized to suffering or social injustice, it’s a way of bringing us back to a place of personal reflection.
Try this 10-minute appreciation and gratitude meditation
The beauty of a gratitude meditation practice is that you can do it in any number of ways, anywhere, and at any time of day. You could design your own personal morning gratitude meditation while you’re brewing that perfect cup of coffee! Or give thanks for the abundance of food that’s available to us while you’re on line at the grocery store. Sitting down for an evening gratitude meditation is an opportunity to mindfully reflect on the good parts of your day.
If you’d like some guidance, check out the Headspace guided meditation course for gratitude: Headspace on Appreciation (available only to Headspace subscribers), where you’ll practice a technique called Reflection. Begin with a 10-minute gratitude meditation, or choose the 15- or 20-minute options. The idea is to become more familiar with the feeling of appreciation, rather than the intellectual idea, which can often sound a bit clichéd. The experience of appreciation is anything but. It’s a heartwarming feeling that encourages us to be more present. And the more familiar it becomes, the more time we’re likely to spend experiencing it.
Benefits of gratitude meditation
If experiencing more feelings of happiness and appreciation isn’t enough, here are a few more reasons to give thanks. According to Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., renowned scholar on the science of gratitude, a deep sense of gratitude reduces anxiety and feelings of isolation because it takes us out of our cocoon of self-absorption and entitlement, and helps us connect to something larger than ourselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a spiritual/higher power.
Another benefit, from even a short gratitude meditation, is that it can help us get unstuck. Because our brains can sometimes get caught in a loop of anxiety, worry and fear, we have to work at breaking the cycle. Gratitude helps us to shift perspective and open up our minds, allowing us to disentangle ourselves from negative thoughts.
Findings suggest that the effects of practicing gratitude are long-lasting. The feeling of happiness that comes from appreciation may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude. Gratitude appears to actually rewire our brain so we’re better able to deal with adversity — both in the present moment and also to build reserves we can draw on down the road.
Why practice gratitude meditation
Many social psychologists believe that gratitude isn’t our default setting. For survival purposes, humans were designed with instincts sensitive to the merest whiff of anything amiss. Our ancestors were hardwired — not so much to appreciate a magnificent sunset, but to scan for a shadowy presence that could indicate danger. Psychologists think this tendency to live more fully in our negative emotions rather than in our positive ones is an inherited evolutionary predisposition.
To shift our focus takes a little effort. And, as with all types of meditation, the more we practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes. The duration of your meditation is not important; what matters is consistency, which is key. Whether it’s a few minutes each day, or once a week, the more appreciative moments we create for ourselves and the more we make a habit of giving thanks, the more we reap the benefits.
“As the ancient sages and contemporary research tells us,” Emmons wrote in his book Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program For Creating Emotional Prosperity "...becoming aware of one’s blessings actually leads to having more to be grateful about.”
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