The Power of Gratitude and 3 Creative Ways to Practice It

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” – A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh.

In recent years, scientific studies have shown that being thankful can improve our lives in all kinds of ways. According to this infographic created for the Huffington Post, cultivating an attitude of gratitude has physical, mental and psychological benefits (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/23/gratitude-effect-body_n_6510352.html). The infographic summarizes the results of studies suggesting that grateful people have lower blood pressure, smoke less tobacco, exercise more, take better care of their physical health, sleep better at night, and have lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Studies suggest that being grateful improves self esteem, reduces the risk for major depression, reduces negative emotions like envy, and can increase empathy and resiliency even when we are faced with challenging or negative experiences. Gratitude is also strongly correlated with optimism, and increased optimism can improve immune system functioning and make us feel happier (http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/).

If there are so many benefits to something as simple as stopping for a moment to reflect on the good things about the day, then why can it sometimes feel like such a challenge? When we are busy, stressed, or are facing life challenges, it can seem as if the negatives or the bad parts of the day just overwhelm and take control. When in the midst of a storm, the rain and wind absorb our attention and it is easy to forget that the sun still shines behind the clouds.

Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, difficult life circumstances are a wonderful time to intentionally work on cultivating gratitude. At Art as Therapy we often journey with individuals and families who are experiencing challenges. Our goal is to support families in finding creative ways to use their inner strengths to face those challenges and to develop positive coping strategies while weathering the storm. Taking a strengths-based approach allows us to look for and focus on what’s working really well and what’s going right, even in the most challenging circumstances. This emphasis on strengths creates a shift in the power dynamic – instead of focusing on the problem and allowing it to dominate the individual’s sense of self, a focus on strengths brings awareness to the individual’s inner power that is separate from the problem.

Similarly, when we intentionally focus on being grateful, we shift our attention away from the negatives in a situation and give more power to the positives. Taking time to be thankful means taking time to stop and reflect. Through this reflection we can become more aware of our supports and identify things that we find helpful. This process can help us to discover and develop positive coping. Thankfulness and gratitude are also character strengths that each of us have the capacity to develop with practice.

Today we’re sharing three simple, creative ways to intentionally practice gratitude:

  1. Start a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as keeping a small notebook on your bedside table and jotting down 3 things you’re thankful for before turning off the light at night. Studies suggest that this simple act can help you to feel less stressed, more calm, and sleep better (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-jessen/gratitude-journal_b_7745854.html). If you are interested, your gratitude journal can be more elaborate – you can incorporate art making into the process and use prompts or questions for inspiration as you go deeper in your gratitude journey. Here’s a link to a blog post with 25 different gratitude journal prompts: http://goodthingsrealized.com/25-gratitude-journal-prompts-and-ideas/.  Not only does regular journaling become a fantastic habit that makes gratitude more of an automatic response, but it also creates a valuable coping tool – during challenging times you can go back through your journal and read about all of the good things you’ve noticed.
  1. Make a family gratitude jar. Decorate a recycled mason jar using washi tape or sharpies. Cut small pieces of patterned or textured paper and place them, along with a few pens or markers, beside the jar. Put the jar in a prominent place – perhaps on the kitchen counter or by the front door. Invite your family members to help you fill the jar with notes of gratitude – this can be simple things they are thankful for, or good things that happened during their day. You could even make this a shared activity as part of the family routine – perhaps everyone writes a note for the jar after supper, or children do it together with you at bedtime. You can set a date to dump and read the contents of the jar – in her blog post about happiness jars Heather suggests reading the gratitude notes on New Years’ Eve (http://www.mommypotamus.com/gratitude-happiness-jar/). Or you can turn to the jar on tough days and reflect on all of the good things that have happened recently.
  1. Create a thankfulness collage. Set aside an hour or so to intentionally focus on gratitude. Take a large piece of paper and write in the centre “I am thankful for…” Brainstorm all of the things that you’re grateful for at this moment in time. Then spend some time decorating your paper – you can draw, write, or paste images of the things on your list. When you’re finished, hang your collage by your bed or your desk as a reminder of all that you have to be thankful for.

What’s your favourite way to practice gratitude? Share your insights and ideas with us – send an email to info@artastherapy.ca or call 1-519-307-9000. For more information on how art therapy can help support you or your family when facing challenges, contact us today.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis Art Therapist at Art as Therapy

Here’s a list of references for this post – check them out for more info and ideas about gratitude!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/23/gratitude-effect-body_n_6510352.html

http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-jessen/gratitude-journal_b_7745854.html

http://goodthingsrealized.com/25-gratitude-journal-prompts-and-ideas/

http://www.mommypotamus.com/gratitude-happiness-jar/

https://www.getawaytoday.com/blogs/2013-11-01/november-tradition-family-gratitude-jar-tutorial