“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances,” Saint Paul instructs in his letter to the Thessalonians. And whether you’re Christian, or Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist or other, this is good advice. Because science shows that cultivating gratitude has a big impact on your brain, your happiness and your relationship with the world. Give thanks, and as a result of the practice you’ll find yourself rejoicing.
I’ve been reading The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, and in it he discusses the Jesuit prayer, the Examen, in detail. This got me thinking about my own habits of conscious gratitude, where they were working, and where they might be improved.
The Examen as Martin outlines it entails five simple steps:
For Martin (and Ignatius), the Examen and the practice of gratitude have a powerful effect on our ability to savor events and days. As I read the Martin book, it seemed to me that this practice is a glimpse at how me might slow that pell-mell rush of our timeline, that sense that our days, months, years are slipping away.
You ever turn around and think, wow, where did the last month go? A daily examination can prevent that lost-time syndrome.
This is partly because your daily practice of gratitude doesn’t just focus on the big things.
Martin says, “Obvious things would include any good news, a tender moment with a spouse, finishing an important project at work. But also less-obvious things: the surprising sight of sunlight on the pavement in the middle of a bleak midwinter’s day, the taste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich you had for lunch; satisfaction at the end of a tiring day caring for your children.”
I particularly love the “sight of sunlight on the pavement in the middle of a bleak midwinter’s day.” These sorts of moments are the poetry of life, and the abundant gift of it – if we notice!
This practice of gratitude allows you to “savor” the whole of your life. And to practice the “presence” that so many religious and philosophical traditions urge to be calm, grounded and happy.
The results are scientifically measurable, as described in this article by Alex Korb, Ph.D., from Psychology Today:
- Increased optimism
- Improved exercise patterns
- Fewer aches and pains
- Better sleep
- Lower anxiety and depression
This all makes sense, since according to a National Institutes of Health study cited in the story that measured blood flow to different regions of the brain:
“Subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels,” Korb writes
And further, “feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.”
Dopamine feels good, but also initiates action.
So from a religious or secular perspective, a practice of gratitude makes good sense. Personally, I am trying to incorporate the Examen into my daily practice, and a verbal recounting of things we are grateful for in morning prayers with the kids. But if the religious approach is not for you, try simply jotting down five things you are grateful for in your journal each morning and evening. Or just once a day. You’ll be thankful you did.