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How Gratitude Works, and Why It's Our Most Powerful Tool

This is a blog about storytelling, and often the most important stories in our lives are the ones we tell ourselves. Our very ability to interpret and engage with the world around us depends on them – what we see, how we see it, and the meaning we give to these observations.

Everyday we are faced with countless opportunities to make decisions about what to pay attention to and how to fit these things into the matrix of our reality. When we open our eyes in the morning there are millions – billions – of stimuli that are vying for our attention: the birds outside the window, the temperature of the covers, the scent of sweat and (if our partner is lucky) coffee. We can’t pay attention to it all at once, so we choose. And then we give these things meaning.

What meaning? Well, that depends. The temperature of the sheets might not be of issue to you, but I’m 7 months pregnant, entering an unseasonably hot summer in the Okanagan, and sheets cooled by the morning air through the window is a godsend. The scent of coffee might be commonplace, but when you remember that the can was empty last night and someone must have hit the corner store this morning while you were snoozing, suddenly that aroma might trigger some serious sentiments of affection.

Psychology Today states that gratitude is "an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has." It is the feeling tied to acknowledging that we are without lack in some way – that we are fortunate for what is in front of us. Cultivating this gratitude, then, requires a certain level of intent. It means paying attention to what is in front of us and then recognizing its value. It is nurtured by our attitude – our decisions about the value of the things in our lives.

How does it work? There have been many studies to evaluate the effects of gratitude on overall happiness and well-being (read more here), but the general consensus is that simply encouraging thankful thoughts can improve our relationships (we open the door to trust and love when someone feels they are being appreciated), develop our personality (we become less materialistic and self-centered, more positive and optimistic), advance our career potential (we are more liked, make better decisions, and strive to achieve higher goals), and improve our health (better sleep, more energy and motivation to take care of ourselves).

Stories need a beginning, a middle, and an ending for them to feel satisfying. When we tell ourselves stories, we need these elements for them to stick – for them to offer us something valuable. So when we see an old friend, we think about when we met, the memories we have created, and the value they will give to our lives for years to come. If that friend is sick, we suddenly lose that happy ending in our narrative. Some day we will lose them. Some day we will lose everything…

But here is that friend, right in front of us now, and isn’t that something to be grateful for? Isn’t every moment we’ve spent with them something to be grateful for? Every moment we’ve spent on this planet…isn’t that enough to be truly thankful for?

Gratitude might be our most powerful tool we have – accessible in every moment with the power to completely change our perspective, improve our health, strengthen our relationships, and aid us in achieving our goals. We are armed and ready at any given time to bolster ourselves to new heights, to find joy and bliss in every experience, and to simply become better people. All we have to do is pay attention and be thankful.

Check out this beautiful Moving Art video on Gratitude

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