A Few Charms (Banner)

A Few Charms (Banner)

Monday, 13 October 2014

This Thanksgiving develop an attitude of gratitude

It's Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and a perfect time to start thinking about developing an "attitude of gratitude," not just on these special occasions, but as a practice, throughout the year.

One of the most powerful tools in battling my depression has been the simple act of being grateful. Many years ago (almost 20 actually - eek!) a very special friend gave me a book called "Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy."

Amazon's Product Description for Simple Abundance: "With the grace of Ann Morrow Lindberg's Gift from the Sea and the wisdom of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled, Simple Abundance is a book of 366 evocative essays - one for every day of your year - written for women who wish to live by their own lights. In the past a woman's spirituality has been separated from her lifestyle. Simple Abundance shows you how your daily life can be an expression of your authentic self."

The author, Sarah Ban Breathnach, had been on Oprah and shared the idea of doing a Gratitude Journal. After that episode the talk show queen became a big proponent of using a Gratitude Journal. Breathnach described the process as "consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life."
My Gratitude Journal
It's a pretty easy thing to do. You find a lovely notebook that is to be used just for gratitude and nothing else. And then you list five things you are grateful for; I write "Today I am Grateful for:" at the top of the page.
When things are not going so well, I have to search for things to be grateful for, like running water, or a bed to sleep in. Other times I may be thankful for someone who simply held the door for me, or hearing the sounds of Canada geese and looking up to see them flying in v-formation. Yesterday I was grateful for: 1. a message from a friend, 2. my kids doing Saturday morning chores without complaints or whining, 3. a sunny Autumn day, 4. leaf-peeking with my family, and 5. capturing this photo of the Fall colours.

Fall colours at the MacKenzie King Estate
When I first received the Simple Abundance book I did my Gratitude Journal every day for a year, and it had a HUGE impact on my mood. I found that doing this changed how I saw things throughout my day. It's like you start looking for things to be grateful for as you go about your everyday life. 

When you are depressed you tend to focus on the negative things and discount the positive; psychologists call these cognitive errors - or distorted thinking - "magnifying the negative" and "minimizing the positive." A Gratitude Journal can be a way to switch that around - noticing instead the positives in your life.

This is not a new concept, but now there is actual scientific evidence that stopping to appreciate something in your everyday life actually changes the wiring in your brain to make you happier. Rick Hanson, author of "Hardwired Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence" says we simply need to "make a concerted effort to notice those little, everyday pleasant encounters." The cool thing is that you only need to linger for about twelve seconds to make these feelings long-lasting.

Do you think that when Pandora first created the concept of their bracelets they knew that stopping (and buying a charm) to celebrate those "unforgettable moments" actually makes us happier? Please tell your husbands that there is scientific evidence that Pandora makes you happier!
YouTube video of TEDx Talk: Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson

In an article in the Huffington Post, Hanson elaborates on the power of experiencing "moments" with a childlike awe, "The more that things seem fresh and new, the more that you're looking at them with beginner's mind or child's mind, that's going to increase brain structure," essentially becoming part of our lasting emotional memory.

When my children were little I took a workshop called "MindMasters." It is a research-based program that includes a series of simple and concrete techniques to help children manage stress and frustration; techniques that we can teach our own children. Mindmasters focuses on teaching five important positive living skills: relaxation (how, why and when to relax), stress control, how to find good things in everyday experiences, positive thinking, and positive imagery. These tools for life-skills were originally developed by Canadian psychologist Terry Orlick to help children living with cancer treatment, and then expanded to be used with all children. Orlick is now a well-known high performance psychologist using these same techniques with astronauts as well as Olympic athletes. (If you teach these skills to kids, they think this last part is pretty cool!) 

One of the activities in MindMasters (or Mini MindMasters for children under six) is called "Treasure Hunting for Happy Highlights." The idea is that at the end of the day your child travels back through their day on a "treasure hunt," looking for "highlights" in their day i.e. things that made them happy. You can write these things on a piece of paper and put it in a special box or jar. Even better, find an unpainted wooden treasure box at the dollar store or a craft store, and have your child decorate it. For older children, of course, they can write them in a special journal. Developing these skills can be very powerful.

A few years ago I was the Lifestyle Coach for a program at our local Y, in conjunction with the Obesity Research Unit at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). I worked with both the overweight/obese children and their parents. The youngest child in the group was six. She lived with her grandmother because her parents had lost custody through the Children's Aid Society. She was crying when she explained this to me and told me how much happier she was because she had been doing her Happy Highlights every night. She reminded me that you are never too old - or too young - to start developing an "attitude of gratitude."

This little treasure box charm reminds me to go on a treasure hunt every day for happy highlights, and to teach my children, especially my son (my "Number One Son"), these important skills. What do you have to be thankful for?

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