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Self-Care: Taking on the Gratitude Challenge

- Friday, November 16, 2018

by MCF Clinical Supervisor Ronnie Biemans, MA, LCPC

From time to time when I encounter a challenging moment or when someone I hold dear is struggling, I think of a particular song from The Sound of Music, a movie musical I enjoyed as a child. The song is “My Favorite Things” and goes like this:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriters, wrote the lyrics before we had access to the brain research that supported their message.

According to Rick Hanson, PhD, in his book Buddha’s Brain, “negative trumps positive” in the brain. We have a negativity bias. This survival-based mechanism has allowed our species to continue by remembering and avoiding experiences that may injure or kill.

“Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones. When you tilt towards what’s positive, you’re actually righting a neurological imbalance.” Hanson says, “Focusing on what is wholesome and then taking it in naturally increases the positive emotions flowing through your mind each day. Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole.”

Positive feelings have far reaching benefits and can build a stronger immune system, support a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress, and help minimize the effects of trauma. Practicing gratitude is one well-researched method to generate positive feelings and shift our set point.

In his book Thanks! Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis writes, "Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism. The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness."

Gratitude Journaling and a Family Activity

How can we practice gratitude in a way that can be easily incorporated into our busy lives? Consider these two approaches, one focused on the individual and one on the family:

Gratitude Journal

A gratitude journal is a strategy that allows us to consciously call attention to the things we are thankful for. By focusing on gratitude, we become aware and create a shift in our thinking to the positive. The following steps can get you started:

  1. Choose a blank notebook to write in. Keep a pen and the notebook next to your bed.
  2. Look for things during the day for which you are grateful to add to your notebook at bedtime.
  3. Write three to five things you're grateful for each night before bedtime. Review the day and include anything, however small or great, that was a source of blessing or benefits that day (e.g. your child’s smile, a flower in bloom or clouds in a blue sky). If you are inspired, expand a bit and write a few words about your blessings. The bigger you make the experience the more you will remember and “take in the good.”
  4. Begin looking every day for the positive view in all things. View obstacles as opportunities to appreciate or learn.
  5. Focus on the wonderful things in life to attract similar encounters in the course of the day.
  6. Personalize the gratitude journal. Expand it with clippings, photos or quotes from books or magazines.

Family Activity: Gratitude Tree

This is an exercise that you can adapt as you’d like. Create the trunk and branches of a large tree using brown craft paper and hang it on a door or wall. Cut out or purchase paper leaves to hang on your tree. Each day distribute a new leaf to everyone in the family. Everyone should write something they are thankful for on the leaf and tape it to the tree (you can write for a child who is not yet writing themselves).

Once a week, remove all the leaves from the tree and use them to decorate a table. During a meal or snack time, have the children take turns reading the leaves aloud (or read aloud to them if they are not reading yet.) Collect the leaves at the end of the meal and save a few for a year-end or Thanksgiving gratitude dinner.

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