It's 3 a.m., and someone is screaming in my house. It's my 15-month-old daughter, and she is not happy. My lovely wife does her best to comfort her, but the screaming persists. At that point I know my job is to be gentle, positive and supportive toward my wife and daughter. Instead, I get mad. I wonder why this is happening to us and why being a new parent is so hard. I imagine all the other parents and their babies sleeping soundly; better yet, I remember the days when my wife and I slept with no interruptions, before we had a child. At the time, this thinking felt justified. In retrospect, I see it as irrational, damaging nonsense.
Despite studying happiness and gratitude for nearly a decade, I still struggle with feeling grateful. I know how important it is, and I know it's effective. Nonetheless, I have a tendency to feel bitter about my life circumstances. For people like me to make a real change, intentional effort needs to be made. Here are the scientifically validated gratitude techniques I have found particularly helpful.
List Three Good Things: The quickest and easiest way to feel grateful. List three things that went well in your life recently – maybe you found a great parking spot at work or received a thoughtful compliment from a friend on Facebook. Try it at the beginning or end of your day as a moment of reflection.
Write a Letter of Gratitude: Think of someone like a family member, friend or colleague at work who has made a positive impact on you in some way. Write in detail about what that impact is and what it means to you. The beauty of this one is that you don't have to send the letter; it strengthens your gratitude either way! Research suggests that the ideal frequency of this exercise is about once a week; if done more, writing the letters can become a chore and give you minimal benefit.
How Things Could Be Worse: This one will really challenge your usual thinking patterns. Imagine a worse situation not very far removed from your present reality. For example, in the midst of caring for our daughter in the middle of the night, my wife and I could feel grateful our daughter is having normal teething pain instead of suffering from a serious health condition. Indeed, just writing this makes me feel enormously appreciative of my daughter's health, with or without nighttime fits.
It Will Get Better: It's critical to see your adversity as temporary; convincing yourself that things cannot possibly change will do you no good. If you dread going to work, consider all of the reasons why this is so. Are they all immune to change? What about your job? Is it literally impossible to find something else? Use rational thinking to convince yourself that the situation will improve and it almost certainly will.
For some people, grateful thinking comes naturally. If you're like me, it doesn't. That's why it's essential to make gratitude an intentional practice, both through writing and thinking exercises. Without this effort, you will drift into thinking that is harmful, unproductive and in many cases, untrue.
When we feel ungrateful, we are often imagining an alternative scenario that seems so much better than what we are experiencing. Instead, choose to imagine a scenario that makes you appreciate your present situation. You'll be grateful you did!
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