How many times have you read that “an attitude of gratitude” is gonna change your life?
Personally, way too many.
It felt corny, something created for some Instagram purposes, being an end in itself.
That was until I understood how and why it worked.
THE EVOLUTIONARY NEGATIVE BIAS
I’m gonna take a bit of a detour here, starting from, well, prehistory, but stick with me.
When we were still roaming around in the forests and we were also a prey, not only a predator, to ensure survival our brain had to constantly be looking for threats.
Our alert system would constantly be on, seeing danger and menace at every corner.
And this for good reason.
If you missed a ripe banana, no biggie, sure enough there would have been many more on your path;
if you missed a tiger, however, no more bananas, like, ever.
That’s very simple and straightforward: time after time, the fact of constantly looking out for threats, dangers and perils has proven a winning strategy that has kept us alive for millennia.
So, you see, if you find you have a tendency to negative thoughts, to always see the dark side of things, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. That’s just how our brain has been designed year after year after year.
WHY ARE WE STILL LOOKING FOR EVERYTHING BAD WHEN WE HAVE NO MORE REAL LIFE THREAT?
One would think that now that we’re not chased around by saber-toothed tigers and velociraptors, we could just enjoy a book and a cocktail in the garden without a thought in the world. Being just so happy that we have a garden, a book and a cocktail.
Your mind is constantly rushing back and forth between the past - when you should have done basically everything differently - and the future, already feeling the terrible consequences of things that never happened - and probably never will.
All of this making it so darn difficult to focus on more than two lines at a time of the aforementioned book.
Or life in general, for that matter.
IS THERE AN END TO VICIOUS SPIRAL OF NEGATIVITY?
A magic trick that can stop your mind roamings in a jiff?
A strategy that can train your brain to see not only the negative, but also the beautiful and warm and fuzzy in life?
So, it’s taken indeed a bit of a detour, but here we are: gratitude lists.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO?
All you have to do is to take out pen and paper once a day, write down three things you’re grateful for, and take a moment to feel those warm and fuzzies in your body.
To give you an example: at the time I’m writing this it’s early morning, and I’m so very grateful for my cup of steamy coffee. So now I’m gonna take a moment, close my eyes, and take it all in.
I’m gonna think about the moment my coffee was getting ready, and its incredible smell was just expanding throughout the whole kitchen.
As I think that, I’m smiling.
I’m feeling the joy of that very simple, very beautiful moment throughout my whole body.
AND HERE IS THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT
The longer you can hold to those feelings, the deeper they will get inscribed in your brain, because “neurons that fire together, wire together”.
Which means that everytime you think a thought, a new neural pathway forms in your brain and, the more pathways connected to a thought, the easier it will be to get it back time after time.
Imagine every neural connection as a tiny bridge that connects you to a feeling.
Everytime you think about something negative, a little piece is added to bridge that connects you to all the unpleasant feelings connected to that thought.
But the awesome thing is that it works in the very same way when you have positive thoughts. New pieces are added to the tiny bridges every time you spend time feeling deep in your body how awesome it is that the coffee was not finished (ever happened? Cause in that moment, when you can’t have it, you realize how much joy coffee brings you) and you could make yourself a gorgeous, dark cup.
Every Moment that you linger in that joy, the bridge that takes you to those feeling of happiness becomes a little bigger and a little more solid, so that it will be easier and easier for you to cross it and to reach joyland.
All of this architectural work in your brain by writing three things you’re grateful for everyday.
I would say it’s a pretty good deal.
WHEN SHOULD YOU DO IT?
If you do this in the morning, you’re certainly gonna be off to a beautiful day.
If you do that before going to sleep, it’s gonna make you realize your day was probably not as bad as it might have seemed - you could find three things to be grateful for, afterall - and it’s gonna make you fall asleep faster and sleep a more restful sleep.
Day after day, gratitude list after gratitude list, your brain will be able to focus on all the beauty in your life, leaving increasingly less time to dedicate to gloomy thoughts.
So, what are you grateful for today?