This one is so lovely. And easy. And makes me so happy.
I read about the benefits of gratitude ages ago, so I started writing my thank yous at the end of each day. The idea is to find at least five new things to be grateful for each day, and either write them down or say them out loud. Even on the shittiest days I found there was always something to be grateful for, even it was ‘Thank you that we have a soundproof ladies room at work so I can have a proper cry before the policy meeting,’ – not resoundingly joyous, but still something. I found that on the worst days I would try harder to find positives so I got quite good at finding little snippets of good in amongst the bad, and I found that really comforting. It’s like when we were kids we were told before we could say something mean about someone we had to first say ten nice things, after which that one hurtful thing would sort of lose its power.
Gratitude is one way of finding positives in any situation. One of the reasons gratitude is so powerful is because, as Dan Baker says, it is not possible to feel afraid and grateful at the same time. He says, ‘During active appreciation, the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain][is this what Dr Peters calls the chimp brain?] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.’
After a few years of writing out my thank yous (nearly) every day, last year I realised the extent to which I had wired my brain to grasp for gratitude instead of fear, when, dangling over a 200m canyon in New Zealand, strapped and buckled into a harness with my partner, preparing for the scariest thing I have ever voluntarily done – The Queenstown Canyon Swing – I found that the only sounds my trembly chattering voice could utter were the words ‘thank you,’ over and over again, to the guys sorting out our ropes and buckles. They grinned cheerfully and pretended to count us down from ten, but hilariously released the safety at seven and we dropped like stones into the gaping chasm of Shotover Canyon. It was pretty amazing. I’m trembling now to remember it, and after we had hurtled through the 160m free fall, swung the full 200 metres through crisp mountain air, and were hoisted back up to the ledge, I still couldn’t stop thanking the guys over and over again, as I crawled on my jelly legs back to solid ground. It struck me afterwards that in the middle of the most terrifying event, my instinctive response was instantly gratitude.
But excited fear is slightly different to anxious fear. Excited fear is sparkly, fluttery, bright. My anxious fears recently have been of a gloomy engulfing darkness. They seem to come from a much deeper place of entrenched hard-wiring from which the reprogramming needs a bit more work. I am reminded of what Jane Ransom says are the three keys to gratitude: ‘Emote, extend and exercise.’ Emote means you have to feel it, extend means take it beyond yourself to include others, and exercise means do your daily gratitude tasks. She says that when you emote it fires up the hippocampus, the centre of learning and memory; when you extend to think of others it fires up the bits of the brain involved in social connection; and the daily repetition actually rewires your brain.
My love is very supportive of my daily practices and he joins in with me as we write our happy summary of each day. My London sister in law gave me this cute little 5 year diary and I thought five lines would be enough space to squeeze in my gratitudes every day for five years. My enthusiasm may mean it doesn’t last the full five years! Before falling asleep each night, I ask him what he’s happy about, and we share our (often sleepy) summary of the day, which usually includes me thanking him for dinner, which is often interrupted with, ‘Shit, I need to put the leftovers in the fridge!’
I can’t share any from this week as they are all a bit personal to other people, but here’s a happy example from earlier in the year.
Mr David Meltzer says ‘If you can say or think thank you before you go to bed, and say or think it when you wake up, for thirty straight days, I guarantee you it will change your life.’
Waking up with a thank you is an extra level for me, and if I can train my brain to go straight to gratitude as soon as I wake up, I wonder if that will eclipse the rush of fear that usually slides in a few seconds after I open my eyes. More homework to try out this week.
But I love how easy it is, and can be done at any time. For example, right now, in this 5.30pm October darkness of the Monday after the clocks go back, is usually a time when anxiety would start to creep in. Instead, I can take a minute to list a few thank yous right now:
- These amazing headphones I’m borrowing off my love, so that delicious harmonica of Juzzie Smith reaches straight into my bones as I type.
- An entire world of free music, advice and entertainment on Youtube on this little laptop
- My laundry hanging up around the flat that my love did today while I got my autumn sunshine fix
- The really spectacular artistry of the video game Assassin’s Creed so that right now as my love’s character crawls stealthily through ancient Greek architecture, he is surrounded by the most stunning snow capped mountains and trees full of delicate pink blossom swaying in the golden rays of a digitally remastered afternoon sunset.
- Strawberry and elderflower tea
- The streetlights outside our window so it’s never completely dark out there
- newly cleaned glasses
- Little blue hearts embroidered on my socks
- The hot pink geranium from Charlotte, still in resplendent bloom on the windowsill
- Thesaurus.com for the word resplendent!
The next obvious step, after thinking, saying or writing your gratitudes, is to experience the extra special sparkle of happiness when you express your thanks TO someone. This takes a bit more time, and a touch more vulnerability, but has the potential for even more impact. I was wondering this week how I would fit in a serious session of writing actual thanks to people, and where to start, until my lovely colleagues at Melksham Community Support informed us that a few hundred thank you cards had arrived for the volunteers, and if we wanted to pop in to the office to sign them we would be very welcome. So, hand sanitised and socially distant, I set about writing messages in a huge stack of cards to the amazing volunteers who have been carrying out all the shopping, prescriptions, deliveries and friendly calls for the hundreds of people in the Melksham Area who needed help over the past few months. And how absolutely lovely it was, to smile at each name, to remember the calls, the jobs, the cheerful positivity in which they had all said ‘Yep, no problem’ to each task we gave them. It was so lovely to be able to thank so many of the splendid people that I spent far longer than planned at that table full of cards, and walked away feeling all warm and happy inside. My list of thank yous for Friday included the opportunity to say thank you to so many people!
It is great to know that this thankfulness thinking is always available to me, and I just need to remember to take time to fill up with thanks, just like we do with Vitamin C, to keep the mind healthy and strong against negative thoughts, and keep finding the happiness. As David Steindl-Rast says, ‘We don’t need happiness to be grateful, we need gratitude to be happy.’
Side post-cult note: I guess one of the reasons I find it so easy to reel off a list of thank yous before bed is because of the obvious ritual of prayer that we grew up with. I think praying is a brilliant habit, and of all the practices in all religions, this one probably provides some decent mental health benefits. I don’t believe that asking an imaginary friend to help you with your problems or solve world hunger actually works, but I do believe that articulating your worries, thoughts and thanks (to anyone, from an omnipotent Judeo-christian deity to any of the hundreds of Hindu gods to choose from) is a very positive practice of articulation, and engages all the bits of the brain that help you find your own solutions. A big part of praying in my childhood (in the extreme religious commune as well as the Christian primary school up the road) was offering thanks at the end of each day, which we now know the neurological benefits of. This explains why I always used to feel a lovely warm sense of connection, love and happiness after praying, for the benefits of gratitude, as well as the deep sense of being loved and protected that was available to my impressionable mind by submitting to an all loving (but very much in need of my sacrifice and hard work) heavenly father. One again, what a surprise, it’s just neurology.