Though any time is a good time, this time of year in the United States lends itself to contemplating the role of optimism and thankfulness in our lives.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence of the importance of actively cultivating gratitude, with strong, consistent associations with greater happiness, improved mental health, more satisfying relationships, and better physical health, including boosting the immune system and better sleep. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits — and limits — of counting our blessings.
Importance of Gratitude
Over the ages, our brains have evolved to focus on threat, constantly scanning for danger and negativity. But those brain pathways that were designed to keep us safe can start working overtime, causing us to seek out badness and menace everywhere we look. This mindset is known as “negativity bias,” and can keep us agitated and dissatisfied even when things are going well. Training our minds to focus what we’re grateful for can be a powerful antidote to pessimism and gloom.
Here’s where a daily gratitude journal comes in — the simple practice of listing everything that brings you joy, comfort, or serenity.
It can take many different forms: a physical journal on paper, your phone, or voice memos. You can jot down notes whenever something comes to mind, or you can set aside a few moments right when you wake up or before you go to bed. Your list can be especially powerful to share with a friend or therapist, or with your followers on social media. Other ways to express appreciation are by saying a few words to yourself under your breath when something good happens, or by writing a “thank you” letter to someone who has made your life better.
And when you’re feeling down, reading back over your journal can lift your spirits.
Looking on the Bright Side
It’s easiest, of course, to list the obvious good things in life, but for extra credit, I challenge you to look for the silver lining in sad and bad things as well. Here’s what I mean. The other day I was working in my fall garden, and stepped right into a spider’s web, nearly knocking a huge, swollen momma spider onto me. I’ve been deathly afraid of spiders ever since I was very young — just the sight of one can send me into a full-on panic attack.
As upset as I was, once I’d had a chance to calm down, my mind flashed on Charlotte’s Web, one of my favorite childhood books. Memories of the friendship between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig came flooding back, making me smile. I used to sob so hard every time in the story when autumn came. It was time for Charlotte to lay her eggs and die, her life’s work finished. I felt grateful for those memories, and to that book for giving me a more compassionate appreciation of arachnids.
(Even though I seriously don’t ever want one crawling in my hair.)
It’s Still Okay to Not Feel Okay
One point I don’t want to overlook when talking about gratitude is that it is perfectly acceptable for certain tragedies to never feel right. I’ve written before about toxic positivity and the damage it can do to our authentic selves to paper over our pain in an attempt to only experience positive emotions. Sometimes life simply sucks, and we have every right to sit with our hurt and disappointment, without trying to find a way to make it better.
But it can also be true that an important life lesson will emerge later on. Months or years later, we might find ourselves looking back and see transformation and healing emerging from that awful experience. So my suggestion, when something truly dreadful happens and it seems like nothing good can ever come of it, is to keep an open mind that someday in the future you might feel differently.
I encourage you to take advantage of the benefits of being the source of someone else’s gratitude as well. Setting out each day resolving to perform small acts of random kindness, including volunteering, being a support person for someone in need, or donating to charity can be powerful heart medicine. These loving acts give our lives meaning. They can help remind us of our own good fortune, while extending those blessings to others. And they give us the chance to receive other people’s thanks, widening our circle of gratitude.
Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, once wrote, “When we take time to notice the things that go right, it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day.” Adopting an attitude of gratitude allows us to live the fullness of the goodness in our lives.
Until next time, be sweet to yourself.
Lola Davina is a longtime veteran of the sex industry and author of Thriving in Sex Work: Sex Work and Money, her followup to the formative Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry. You can get the audio version of Sex Work and Money via Awesound here. Contact Davina at Lola.Davina@ynotcam.com and visit her on Twitter at @Lola_Davina.
Image of Lola Davina courtesy Pat Mazzera.