For Well-Being, Thanks a Lot

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From the ceiling on the northweast corner of my office hangs a tiny wind chime, in spite of the fact that I work in a building with sealed windows.

It was placed there by a colleague several years ago when she became very interested in feng shui and wanted to instruct me on the value of placing objects strategically in my consulting room for optimum energy flow.  The wind chime represented gratitude.  I came to regard a lot of what she said as some sort of sorcery, but some of the ideas, like orienting my chair at a certain angle in front of a window, really improved my view.

The gratitude corner changes the view, too.

Like those muscles that I don’t exercise regularly, the part of my brain that registers gratitude gets flabby when not doing enough reps enunciating thanks for the plenitude of every day.  As the horizon is scanned, there seems to be mostly negative stuff poking up:  a family member who develops a health challenge, a desk piled high with more work than I think I can do, a house that won’t clean itself.  When I get churlish about the pile of work on my desk, it’s because I forget to be grateful to have work, to have the ability to DO work, that I love the work I do.

There is a book currently on the bestseller list of the New York Times Review of Books, though the same paper issued a hilarious and scathing review last Sunday.  I’d already read the book, being a sucker for “recipes” of almost any kind. I agree with the review in the Times, but there is one chapter that spoke to me:  “The Grateful Flow.”  This tool reminds the reader to use gratitude to attack negative thoughts, to consciously make the tool a part of your day at specific times (waking up, going to sleep) or simply when on hold on the phone or in line at the market.  The practice of gratitude will limit worried, circular thinking, says the authors, to our great benefit.  Worried that your roof has a leak?  Be grateful you have a roof, they advise.

Psychologists have long known the overwhelmingly positive effects of feeling and expressing – and writing about – those things that make you thankful. In a famous experiment, participants were divided into two groups, with one half composing a letter of appreciation to someone in their life, while the other half composed a letter describing a place, such as a beautiful beach, or piece of art.  The group that wrote the letter of gratitude showed increased levels of well-being on the authors’ scale.  This and other experiments have concluded that gratitude has the greatest effect on mental health of any other character trait, and also has the most direct effect on lowering stress and depression.

But is gratitude really a “character trait”?

It is not – babies aren’t born grateful. Rather, it’s a learned behavior, taught by good caregivers.  The prompt,  “What do you say, Molly?” is one of the first lessons offered by parents when a child learns to speak. If the habit continues, psychological research shows that folks who focus on gratitude exhibit a subjective sense of greater control over the environment and a stronger sense of purpose in life, and normally occurring stressful events make less of a dent.

There isn’t any minimum daily requirement of gratitude, so whatever our current practice is today, we could make a simple experiment to see what happens when we kick it up a few notches.  When you can’t sleep, practice making an A-Z gratitude list (apples, bobcats, catamarans…). Make eye contact with the barista and feel it deeply inside yourself when you say thanks.  Look outside when you first get up in the morning and say the first thing you feel fortunate to see.

I’m thankful for the colleague who installed my gratitude corner. I look over there a lot during the day, and each object on the table beneath the wind chime reminds me of something for which I feel deep thanks.

Remember the voice from childhood reminding you, “What do you say?”

Ruth Wimsatt is a psychologist in Newport Beach, and can be reached at [email protected] or 949-222-3285.


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