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How to Practice Gratitude: 4 Secrets Backed by Research

Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians. In one of his bits, he talks about how air travelers have lost perspective on how amazing commercial flight actually is. Imitating a moaning passenger, he whines:

“I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.”

Then, he counters:

“Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires that you couldn’t even conceive how they f**king put air in them?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.” (1)

It’s All About Perspective

The fact that humans can fly is amazing. And so is pretty much everything else. I mean, have you ever considered what a miracle your existence is? Let’s look at some numbers. According to Dr. Ali Binazir’s calculations (2), the probability of you even existing at all (taking into account each of your ancestors reproducing successfully, your parents finding each other, the right sperm meeting the right egg, and so on) is about as likely as if:

“2 million people got together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with TRILLION-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.”

That’s pretty damn near impossible, and yet here you are. And if you’re like me, you routinely take this unfathomable miracle for granted. You might even complain about it from time to time.

So, why do we do that? Why can’t we appreciate our lives as the miracle it really is, and in the words of Louis CK, constantly yell “WIIIIIIIIIII!!!” every time we’re on a flight?

The Negativity Bias 🙁

We, as it turns out, our brains have a natural tendency to be more attentive to negative, rather than positive, experiences. Psychologist, Rick Hanson, explains this “negativity bias” like this (3):

“The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard — pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.”

Our brains aren’t designed to make us happy but to keep us alive. And always paying extra attention to what’s negative has turned out to be a pretty great immediate survival strategy. However, it also causes us to adopt a more pessimistic attitude which, paradoxically, is linked to shorter life expectancy (4).

So, how can we counteract our negativity bias and start appreciating life more? The answer, in one word, is gratitude.

The Benefits of Gratitude

What’s wrong is always available. And so is what’s right. What we decide to focus on plays a huge role in the quality of our lives. Among many other benefits, studies have shown that (5):

How to Practice Gratitude

So, how do you go about changing your attitude from pessimistic to more optimistic? Here are four research-backed practices (6):

1. Keep a gratitude journal. Spend 15 minutes at least once per week journaling about 3-5 things that you’re grateful for. The physical report is important — don’t just do the exercise in your head. The things to write about can be big or small. What’s important is that you make a habit out of remembering good experiences, people, or other things in your life –and enjoy the good emotions that come with it.

2. Mental subtraction. Spend 15 minutes once a week to reflect on a positive event in your life, for example, an educational or career achievement, the birth of a child, or a special trip you took. Think about all the circumstances that made this possible. Then, write down all of the possible events and decisions that could have gone differently and prevented this event from occurring. Imagine what your life would be like right now if you hadn’t enjoyed this positive event. You can also do this for important people in your life, by reflecting on what your life would be like if you had never met this person.

3. Savor your walks. Take a 20-minute walk each day and try to notice as many positive things around you as you possibly can. These can be sights, sounds, smells, or other sensations. As you notice each of these things, acknowledge them in your mind — don’t let them sleep past you. Try to identify what it is about this particular thing that makes it pleasurable to you.

4. Give it up. Choose something you enjoy on a regular basis and voluntarily abstain from it for a week. Do not allow yourself to indulge in this pleasure at all. If you’re giving up TV, try not even watching videos on your phone. At the end of the week, allow yourself to indulge again. As you do, pay attention to how you feel. Are you noticing certain physical sensations more than usual? How pleasurable is the experience now?

By using practices like these, we can start rewiring our brains to look for the positive, rather than the negative, first.

In Summary:

I’ll get started on my gratitude training right now by saying thank YOU for reading this article. Now, it’s your turn. What are you grateful for right now? And how will you make sure you appreciate it?

“Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.”

— Hyman Schachtel

Footnotes

  1. Louis CK bit on flying.
  2. What are the chances of your coming into being?
  3. Confronting the Negativity Bias
  4. Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study
  5. The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About
  6. How to Build Gratitude