Health researchers are calling it a magic pill. It increases mental strength, enhances self-esteem and empathy, reduces aggression, induces relaxation, improves psychological health, prevents frequent illness, sidetracks aches and pains, enables friendships and sustains deeper relationships. Apparently, we’ve come pre-loaded with the pill – it just has to be activated. It’s a state of mind called gratitude.
Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as "a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible." Researchers are collecting empirical data on the effect of gratitude practice on the brain and overall mental health of a person.
When I started maintaining a gratitude journal around the end of February, I was unmindful of these scholarly curiosities. I just wanted to keep my awareness open to moments of acknowledgment and acceptance without any forced attempt at positivity. I started journaling about those moments and its impact on my life.
I felt the need to take on this gratitude challenge because there’s been a sense of unraveling and seeking, over the last couple of years. I’ve felt doubt, anxiety, despair, grief, loss, confusion and a hunger to own my life even while enjoying the riches of privileged living, deep relationships, and plentiful love. Focusing the lens of gratitude on the bleakness and immense hope in my life has felt like reaching an important point in a page-turner. It has increased the scope for perspective and objectivity in my daily life, and encouraged presence in every moment.
So how does gratitude actually feel? Gratitude feels like an unexpected sighting of the setting sun, while you’re negotiating heavy traffic. Where in my body do I feel it? I feel it, sometimes, in my eyes and throat (as tears that can finally flow), sometimes in my heart – as an expansion, a flood of acceptance and a sort of internal self-hug.
Several years ago, when I took up a 'gratitude challenge' on a social media platform, I found myself grateful for a place to pee, my childhood mango tree, my mother, my ability to breathe, having had life-saving conversations, and people [in my life]. The connections that people made with my posts multiplied my gratitude. I’ve found gratitude journaling, this time, to be a building block for connection, but since it’s been more inward looking, it seemed challenging to sit down at the end of the day and actually put down notes. It took some effort to cultivate the daily discipline of it.
This time, the gratitude challenge has been about fortifying internal connections, letting myself be, accepting internal and external conflicts, taking in the inner landscape, deleting dead images from various memories, shaking hands with my fears, shedding connections that were sucking me into whirls of negativity and yet, opening my heart out to being more vulnerable and deeply present.
When I started journaling, I was looking for work. Ten days into the gratitude challenge, work started trickling in. By day fifteen, I wrote: Work is pouring in. Some changes are happening. As I’ve found time to breathe and journal, I’ve been showered with surprise treats such as the sight of the rising sun hanging off a balcony plant, or finding a Buddhist book on 'How to Fight' when I experienced conflict with a co-worker.
Neha M, an editor, says she enjoys 'the practice of attention' that gratitude journaling encourages. She remembers to express gratitude to herself too, by writing, for example, 'I'm so grateful...I took good care of myself today.' Poornima Mysore, a freelance writer and yoga instructor, thinks the journaling is a 'constant reminder of all that's working out well,' even in the most stressful of times. She said she took up the challenge because 'you need to remind yourself of all the good in life, especially when you're at your lowest.'
Shubha Parthasarathy, a counselor working with parents and children, cautions against letting the practice become a chore. “I remember a father sharing how they started a gratitude circle at home. After a month, it became more like a ritual.” She sometimes gets feedback that writing down the things they are grateful for makes them feel guilty that they are still not feeling happy inside. She says, “It takes time to realize that every experience is, in itself, the way it needs to be.”
Revathi Ramanan had once read that counting your blessings everyday has been scientifically proven to have a positive effect on the brain. She now tweets everyday about one thing she's grateful for. It was during a time when negative comments and over-thinking were pulling her down. The daily stress of raising twin babies while keeping a full-time job outside the home still takes its toll but this practice helps her sleep well at night. "It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place," Revathi says. “Gratitude shifts the moment by shifting me. Nothing around me changes, I change.”
In my knowing, the practice of gratitude has been about realigning with an internal radar tuned towards more compassion, objectivity, sensitivity and a deep sense of acceptance of life as is. It seems like an innate ability well-worth getting back in touch with, especially at times when you want more than what life is willing to give at the moment. The practice of gratitude seems to switch on the lights and show you what is already in the room. It may, of course, mean cleaning, dusting, de-cluttering – never painless tasks – but the practice comes pre-loaded with the reward of a redecorated, more breathable room.