5 gratitude exercises to stop yourself spiralling into despair - Dr Elise Bialylew

At times like these, we have to be careful about how we focus our attention.  

The news streams about our global situation are relentless. We might easily find our attention being hijacked by troubling headlines about the future of finances, health and politics. 

While it’s important to stay informed, we have to make a mindful effort to not get swept into a fast-moving current of fear, worry and panicked behaviour – which is not only bad for us personally, but terrible for the well-being of our communities. 

I’m a doctor of psychiatry and I’ve been teaching mindfulness for seven years through my annual online program, Mindful in May. One of the practices I’ve found to be absolutely essential to the flourishing of people’s wellbeing is gratitude. 

We humans love to project into the future. Anticipation is a powerful way to keep us out of danger’s way and move our lives in the directions we most want them to go in.

But it’s important to not become too focused on what lies ahead – especially at times like these. We must remember to balance anticipation and future preparation with consciously noticing the things in our lives that already bring us joy. 

As Eckhart Tolle said, “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”

Mindfulness helps us pay deeper attention to the ordinary ‘miracles’ in our lives that we so often take for granted. There is incredible complexity and satisfaction in focusing our attention on the simple things that we see, hear, smell, taste and feel in our immediate environment. 

The more often we remember to do this, the more we build neural pathways that incline the mind towards seeing and remembering that which is wonderful and positive, rather than only that which is bad, scary and dreadful. Gratitude isn’t about denying the challenges or suffering in life. It’s about amplifying the goodness that is already there by simply noticing it more consciously. 

There has been a huge amount of research around the benefits of gratitude. Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s leading positive psychologists, discovered that people who noted down what they were grateful for on a regular basis experienced not only an increase in happiness, but also improved physical health. On top of that, she found evidence that writing a letter of gratitude to someone boosts your happiness levels even if you don’t send it.

Gratitude is also a powerful antidote to toxic emotions. Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher, demonstrated that regular gratitude reduced feelings of envy and resentment. Emmons also discovered that for people who were experiencing chronic illness and pain, regular gratitude practice provided more positive emotions, better sleep, more connection and a more optimistic outlook on life.

So with that in mind, here are five exercises you can do to boost your mood with gratitude.

1. Practise the gratitude spiral

You can run through this gratitude spiral each night before you go to sleep, or when you wake up in the morning. 

Start by bringing attention to yourself, noticing both your body and your mind. Take a moment to bring to mind all of the different organs and systems in your body, and show gratitude to each of them. 

Thank the lungs for breathing, the heart for beating, the liver for cleansing and detoxifying, the digestive tract, the brain, the kidneys, the spleen, the nervous system, the skin – so many systems working every minute of every day to keep us alive. Even if, for those chronically ill, they are somehow imperfect, they are still working for you to bring you life each day.

Then expand your awareness and bring to mind other people in your life and take a moment to be grateful for those who care for and support you. 

Then expand your awareness and bring attention to the environment around you, connecting with what makes you feel grateful in your home, town, country, or in nature.

2. Create a gratitude group to stay connected to the practice

I have participated in a gratitude group for a few years now and it’s been a powerful way to stay connected to the goodness in my life. Contact a few friends and hold one another accountable to check in regularly and share something you feel grateful for. You could create a Facebook group, or use WhatsApp or another messaging service.

3. Start a gratitude journal

Keep a weekly diary where you record things that you’re grateful for. Reflect on three such things from your day and then three things you are looking forward to. 

Interestingly, research by Sonja Lyubomirsky reveals that choosing a single day once a week to practice gratitude has a greater impact on happiness levels than writing something down every day. In other words, it’s important to keep a gratitude practice fresh and novel to avoid it becoming a meaningless task that you tack onto your day

4. Start a gratitude jar

This exercise is particularly effective with children, as it’s a visual representation of gratitude. 

Find a large jar and get some small coloured pieces of paper. Choose one dinner or evening a week – ideally at the end of the week – and ask everyone to add a note of gratitude to the jar reflecting on five things for which you are grateful. At the end of the year sit down as a family, empty the gratitude jar and read through your many moments of gratitude.

5. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been kind to you

Research by Martin Seligman, pioneer of the positive psychology movement, demonstrates that people who write a letter to someone they appreciate increase their own levels of happiness for a month after giving the letter to the person. (A month!) Make a habit of writing one gratitude letter a month to someone who has supported you, and where possible, actually send it!

Mindful in May: In times like these, we really can’t afford to lose our mind. Spend a month training your mind through Mindful in May and step into greater calm.