#grateful: The power of gratitude in times of crisis and beyond

#grateful’. It sounds a bit eye-rolling right? Also the sort of sentiment that makes a sane person want to block your feed right now.

But here’s the curious thing. I have discovered that if you accept the simple invitation to look for regular reasons to be grateful, however small, it has the power to change your life.

It all started with WhatsApp. A friend told me about a group that she belonged to, in which people posted daily about what they were grateful for. She raved about it. Inspired by the possibility of sharing a bit of positivity I started my own gratitude group. Sounds a bit eye-rolling right? I worried that it might be. But I could also imagine that it might be a platform for a different kind of conversation and a reprieve from the jaded lens through which we often bemoan our busy lives. A kind of island in the stream.

Wow. And how. I don’t think any of us who joined the experimental group had an inkling of how much we would come to love what it provided us.

One of its immediate and most profound effects was to shift the lens through which we viewed the world day to day. Suddenly we were on the lookout for the positive. When caught in a funk, a message might pop through on the group. Cue eye-roll. But it would also nudge a small reset with its momentary lightness. We’d often reflect back on our funk, get a bit of perspective and see a slightly bigger picture. We would, almost involuntarily, look for something positive to bring to mind in that moment. And even if the funk was bad and we couldn’t, the group was a kind of gentle but consistent autocorrection that started to infiltrate our psyches, drawing our attention and opening our hearts more frequently to the present-moment blessings in our lives. We shared and celebrated moments big and small, from engagements and childbirths to cuddles with pets and someone else cooking dinner.

Make no mistake, these were not reflections of halcyon lives untouched by pain. During the short time our group has been running our members have navigated, amongst many things, the loss of parents and unborn children, the severe illness of loved ones, the collapse of businesses and relationships, and now most recently the challenges of lockdown. And we found that in these times of darkness that, counterintuitively, the gratitude group has been something we’ve been drawn to.

We have used it to celebrate the spark of light in the midst of darkness, to open more fully to both the beauty and the pain. There is a raw emotion to these particular posts that touches the soul, and that brings viscerally to life the exquisite paradox of being human.

Through all of this the group has fostered an authentic and meaningful connection between many of its members, some of whom have never met in the flesh. When I thought it might be a platform for a different kind of conversation I had no idea. The power of this simple gratitude practice has proved to be beyond any of our expectations. It has grounded us more firmly in the present moment, helped us view the world through a more positive lens, led to us to more openhearted engagement with our daily experience (both positive and negative), and helped us cope with times of stress both enormous and everyday.

So what is it, exactly, about gratitude that is so powerful? The Appreciative Heart: The Psychophysiology of Appreciation is a fascinating report published by the HeartMath Institute that goes into detail on some of the available research on this topic. In it I learnt that, from a physiological perspective, appreciation (as well as other positive emotions) has been shown to shift our autonomic nervous system into increased parasympathetic activity. In plainer language, feeling gratitude causes a nervous system response that turns off our ‘fight or flight’ stress response and turns on a ‘rest and digest’ response that decreases heart rate and blood pressure, and increases digestion (amongst other effects). It calms our system down and let's us recover from stress. What’s more, appreciation also causes coherence of the heart rhythm and entrainment between the heart rhythm, respiration and blood pressure oscillations. All of which makes our system run more efficiently. And if that’s not enough, the report’s findings also provide a potential physiological link between appreciation and improvements in faculties such as motor skills, focused attention, and discrimination. Cognitively we function better. And powerfully, repeated self-inducement of states of gratitude leads to the ability to sustain it.

In short, feeling gratitude helps to bring our bodies and minds back into balance and helps to counter the effects of our stressful lifestyles, making us more resilient and psychophysiologically healthy over the long term. And when practiced consistently, it helps us establish a new, more positive baseline.

All of which partly explains why heartfelt participation in our WhatsApp group had become such a positive influence in our lives. I say partly because there is a whole story around the power of vulnerability to forge authentic connection that is embedded in our group’s story too, but that’s a topic for another day.

I believe a simple gratitude practice like this can have powerful applications for the workplace too. This is not a new idea. In the mid 2000’s I did some management training based on the work of Nancy Kline and Appreciation is one of her Ten Components of a Thinking Environment. In that training one of the cultural routines suggested was to begin each meeting with a round of ‘what went well this week?’. I remember we all loved it and found it powerful in practice. But in truth it slipped quite quickly out of regular use. The status quo can prove quite intransigent especially when the dominant view, as Nancy Kline wrote herself, is that ‘In life we learn that to be appreciative is to be naïve, whereas to be critical is to be realistic. In discussions, therefore, we focus first, and sometimes only, on things that are not working.’ But she goes on to say ‘Consequently, because the brain requires appreciation to work well, our thinking is often specious.’ Basically, by following common practice we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

The time is now to be brave with our leadership. To institute the things we know will work, even if they’re incongruous with the way things have been done before. To be more conscious, more heart-centred.

To start meetings with a round of appreciation and withstand the initial eye-rolling. Or to look for other ways to build positive emotional practices into the workplace.

Right now more than ever we have the opportunity to move forward in a new way. Let’s take it.

Helen Ludwig is the founder of Budhana and is passionate about the power of mindfulness, breathwork and yoga to expand our personal potential and to nurture powerful leadership. She works to develop new blueprints for bringing embodied mindfulness and spiritual wisdom practices into the workplace and into our social structures so that together we can build a world where everyone thrives.

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