I’m a big believer in gratitude and firmly believe that practicing gratitude is good for your wellbeing and happiness. In 2011 when I first took the VIA Character Strengths Test gratitude featured at number 9 on my strengths list. I took the test just prior to attending my first Masterclass in Applied Positive Psychology led by Miriam Akhtar and Bridget Grenville Cleave. They introduced me to the research behind gratitude practice and specifically to gratitude journaling.
As soon as I left that afternoon session on a sunny afternoon in Bristol I went to buy myself my first gratitude journal. I have treasured it ever since and only last month had to invest in a new one. My gratitude journal allows me to pause, to savour and to appreciate all that is good in my life. I don’t write in it every day, just whenever I feel like it and often I feel like it most when things aren’t going so well in my life – it reminds me that despite the tough times life is actually pretty damn good. Yet, my gratitude journal has offered me so much more than just these quiet moments of reflection. It has completely changed the way I think, my attitude towards events that take place in my life and it enables me to cope better when things do go wrong.
Rising up the chart
In 2013, at the start of my MAPP journey at the University of East London I took the VIA Character Strengths Test again and I was surprised to find gratitude had catapulted from number 9 to number 1. Gratitude had actually become my top character strength after practicing it for just 2 years. This made me realise the power of positive psychology and the impact it can have on people’s lives.
As an ex-physical education teacher I like to help my students understand the power of positive psychology using a sporting analogy. Let me explain. If you want to train your bicep muscles to become stronger you would train that muscle and over time you would see and feel the changes. To gain muscle you need to use high weights and low repetitions and you may follow a 6 week programme where the weights become increasingly heavier. Yet, so few of us think about training our minds to improve and work more effectively using the same methodology. Why is that?
A better perspective
Gratitude practice is just one example of a positive psychological technique that can enable your mind to think and feel better. What I realised with my own gratitude practice is that I see good things much more easily now – it’s like my mind is attuned to the positive rather than the negative. It has allowed my perspective on life to be much better and as a result I feel better both physically and mentally, I am happier and more content with life and I savour moments much better than I ever did before. Even when times are tough I can find things to be grateful for which reminds me that life is good and bad times don’t last forever.
Gratitude practice for children
I believe in gratitude practice so much I even encourage my children to practice it. My children are 10 and 8 and for the past 5 years the nightly routine is to tuck my children into bed and ask them their three best things about their day. This enables them to focus on what went well rather than what didn’t and I like the idea of their minds being happy as they doze off to sleep. My little girl always says, “right now” as the first of her three best things which I love because this shows me how much she loves and savours that time we share together every day as much as I do.
My only concern with gratitude practice is of falling into the trap of just being grateful for what you have. Some people can, and do, fall into the trap of living a life of gratitude to the extent that they believe they should never strive for more, hope for more, dream for more. Yes, I am grateful for what I have in my life right now but that doesn’t stop me dreaming of more, and that’s ok – that doesn’t make me less happy. In fact it is what drives me on in life and motivates me every day. This is the danger of gratitude practice. We should never teach people to just be grateful for what they have as this implies that, to some extent, they have no control over their life and their circumstances – this is just encouraging learned helplessness. Gratitude practice is not an acceptance of the cards you’ve been dealt in life, it’s about accepting where you are right now and focusing your attention on the good stuff rather than the bad. We must remember that life is for living and our dreams and hopes challenge us to further improve and succeed in life. Our dreams are what help us to lead a flourishing life remember and just like training your bicep muscle over a 6 week period to increase your strength we need to remember the simple rule of weight training here– if you don’t use it you’ll lose it. You have to keep on practicing positive psychological techniques such as gratitude for them to have a sustained positive impact on your life and avoid getting caught in the trap of gratitude practice.
About the author: Katie Small graduated with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London in 2014. Katie’s passion is to teach teenagers about the power of positive psychology and how it can enable human beings to thrive. Katie is an Assistant Principal at Liverpool Life Sciences UTC.