You're doing gratitude wrong.
Popular science tells us to write 3 things each day that we're grateful for and that will spark the positive mental changes we want in life.
At times it feels forced and repetitive. I mean, how many times can I be thankful for good health and comfortable home before it just becomes ordinary?
Dr. Andrew Huberman has found a better way. The most significant impacts of gratitude come from moments where we RECEIVE genuine gratitude (or can relate to someone else receiving gratitude). The genuine piece is important because we are pretty good BS detectors.
Reflecting on those memories and stories is the foundation of an effective gratitude practice. Stories are captivating and have demonstrated an ability to cause specific physical, mental, and emotional changes in their audience. In addition to improved health, stories of gratitude activate specific brain circuits that increase positive social behaviors and decrease the anxiety-inducing, defensive circuits.
To begin the practice, recall a time when someone expressed their thanks to you.
Personally, I think back to the last class I taught. It was the second professional development class I converted to a virtual environment from a traditional classroom. The experience is intimidating because it's four hours of content you hope lands and engages 10+ adult professionals.
Otherwise, you can end up speaking to yourself for four hours while your audience slides that video window to the side.
I thought the class went well, but immediately afterward ALL the students expressed their appreciation for the class and how it was one of the best classes they'd taken. It was followed by an email thread with further appreciative comments and application of class content.
Before the class, I felt every bit the imposter, anxious about my abilities to plan, facilitate, and connect.
Following the expressions of gratitude, I felt appreciated for my efforts, validated as an instructor, and motivated to launch into the next opportunity.
This comparison is what Huberman says our practice should be focused around. He suggests using the same stories over and over as it becomes easier each time to reactivate positive feelings. This process takes between one to five minutes, three times a week for optimal benefits.
To assist the process, you might consider writing out bullet points you can quickly reference to focus your practice:
State the person was in before receiving gratitude
State the person was in after receiving gratitude
Any other things that add to the emotional impact (context)
While this practice focuses inward, the science demonstrating that receiving gratitude is most impactful means providing genuine comments or a letter of thanks can be powerful means to positively "shift the neurology" of someone else.
And, personally, I like to keep those positive comments in a folder I can access when I need a little boost.
When is the last time a thank you changed your day?
Sasha Chapin wrote that he was Stranded on the Space Mountains of Self-Loathing. He opens by talking about being in a state of self-loathing, but it changes with a subtle epiphany...
I think of this moment at Disneyland, when you exit Space Mountain. It’s an amazing ride—the first dark rollercoaster ever made, a plunge through infinite space spangled with uncountable stars. When you’re in it, it’s a vast, cosmic experience. But when you get out, if you turn around, you don’t see infinite space. You just see a big chunky building with a popcorn stand next to it. And you’re like, that’s it? That’s what that was? It seemed so real from the inside, it was so absorbing. But it was just a place. And now I can leave.
I love that paragraph as a writing exemplar for using a relatable experience to express a much larger, deeper idea. This leads Sasha to a greater awareness of self-love:
self-love means less. It means lightness. It means knowing that I’m not that complicated. It is the knowledge that I’m a simple thing, both bigger and smaller than I dared to believe. It doesn’t mean proving that I’m great; it’s a permanent vacation from proof. It’s the understanding that I don’t require a solution, that there is no actual problem, and that searching for one is so much work, work that never pays off. It’s the knowledge that I can finally admit that everything is okay.
We can all afford a little more self-love.