Mind & Spirit

What are you grateful for?

By: Cheryl Embrett

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

What are you grateful for?

By: Cheryl Embrett
How to show gratitude
My daughter started teaching me about gratitude from the moment she was conceived. In my late 30s, I suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage and a frightening diagnosis of cervical cancer. I had resigned myself to the fact that I might never have a child when the latest in a long line of pregnancy tests came back positive.

Scotia arrived two months early, weighing just three and a half pounds. A short time later, she was diagnosed with a rare stomach disorder and had to undergo surgery.

When she finally came home to the nursery we’d so lovingly prepared for her, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. That groundswell of emotion has coloured my life, and changed it immeasurably.

Experience positive emotions
"Count your blessings" is something we're taught from an early age.

It's definitely a sentiment we'd do well to cultivate, say the experts. Preliminary findings suggest that if we actively try to become more grateful in our everyday lives, we'll reap lots of benefits.

"Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions, such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness and optimism," says Robert A. Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

How to stay positive
Still, maintaining a grateful disposition isn't always easy. Life is busy, our expectations high, and we often take the important things – family, health and home – for granted.

There's also a wealth of research that suggests we aren't as good at knowing what makes us happy as we could be, says John Zelenski, a psychologist who runs Carleton University’s Happiness Lab in Ottawa. "There's a general tendency to think that material goods will make us happier than they actually do," he says.

In other words, even though we think that we may want a big-screen TV, it doesn't make us grateful in the way that a weekend with friends would. "In North America, we're more focused on ourselves as autonomous individuals, and see ourselves as responsible when good things happen.That may be good for our self-esteem, but it doesn't promote gratefulness," he adds.

Page 1 of 4 -- Discover how a life-changing medical diagnosis helped one reader reasses her life on page 2
A wake-up call
Julie McIlroy's wake-up call came at 41 when her brother died suddenly and she had to deal with the emotional fallout.

"My mother became ill, my father couldn't cope and my nephew went off the rails," she recalls. "I was the one, despite experiencing a deep personal grief, who was expected to be strong and keep it all together."

Then she was diagnosed with cancer.

"I read somewhere that illness is God's reset button," she says. "It forces you to stop, look around and take stock of what's important."

How to re-evaluate your life
Before her diagnosis, Julie's career as an advertising executive in Toronto had become all-consuming, leaving little time for family, friends and painting, something she loved to do. After a year of reflection and healing, she decided to quit her job and start her own company. She also bought her first home to start laying down roots, and picked up her paintbrushes again.

 "I think there's a correlation between gratitude and acceptance," she says now, 12 years later, cancer-free and co-owner of a thriving advertising company. "I accepted the fact that I had to look after my nephew when my brother died and that I had to step up my care for my father. But out of that I gained a son and my father is now my best friend. Now I count my blessings all the time."

So how do you become grateful?
As Pollyannaish as it may sound, gratitude does work best as a daily practice, says Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It's like going to the gym - the more you do it, the better you feel and the easier it gets.

"Our natural tendency is to focus on the negative, on what we don't have. To break that habit, you have to form a new way of thinking about the positive."

Page 2 of 4 -- Learn how another reader deals with job loss on page 3

Reflecting on family
Katarina Simons's aha! moment came as she was driving to a Coldplay concert in California eight years ago.

Her husband had been transferred to Silicon Valley in California with his company, they had two adorable little boys and life was good. But all Katarina could think about was a gripe with her parents, how they'd never helped her develop her athletic abilities.

"Here I was, driving this beautiful car to this fabulous concert in this beautiful place. And I thought to myself, What were my mom and dad doing at this point in their lives? They were struggling with three kids, having just moved from Croatia with nothing. They left everything to bring me to Canada so I could have a life of abundant choice and freedom – and here I was whining about what they didn't do for me."

How to handle the unexpected
Undoubtedly, it's easier to feel grateful when everything is chugging along nicely. When stressful things happen – a job loss, a diagnosis of illness or the death of a loved one – it’s hard to stay positive and see the good around us.

But these are the times when we are most in need of what gratitude can give us, says Emmons. "A grateful outlook on life appears to offer protection in times of crisis."

Dealing with job loss
When I unexpectedly lost my job shortly after Scotia was born, I was shell-shocked. I'd been with the same company for 20 years and suddenly my future seemed a lot less secure.

My first impulse was to hide under the covers. But I decided to view this as a chance to spend more time with my toddler and start a freelance writing career. Cliché, yes, but it turned out to be the best thing ever happened to me.

I've learned, through all the ups and downs, that while gratefulness is not a panacea for everything that ails us, it does make life easier. That doesn't mean I always walk around brimming with joy. But on the days I see the glass as half full, the people around me seem happier, and I’m happier and more pleasant to be around, too.

And when I fall from grace, as we all do, I have a beautiful, healthy 10-year-old to remind me of everything I have to be grateful for.

Page 3 of 4 -- Find easy ways to shaw you're grateful with tips on page 4

Just say thanks
Make it a habit to show genuine appreciation for the people who are supportive and who make your life easier – perhaps start with a simple thank-you to the school crossing guard or your babysitter.

Take gratitude "time-outs"
Every night before bed, Karen Holtenhoff, a mom of three in Toronto, and her family talk about three good things they're grateful for or happy about that day.

"We started it because my seven-year-old daughter would always start to fret at night about something bad that had happened to her, and this was a way to end the day on a positive note," says Holtenhoff.

"Sometimes the kids are grateful for snuggles, their family or a vacation they had. Other times, it's what someone did for them – a friend helping them with a task, for example."

Keep a journal
To get started, write down five things each day that you’re grateful for. If you have a smartphone, you can even get a gratitude journal app to write or text in.

"Some days your list will be filled with amazing things, most days just simple joys," says Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy (Grand Central, 2009).

Take it one step at a time
On days you don't feel thankful, settle for the basics: a pet, your home, your life. "By acknowledging what is working in our lives, we set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given to you," says Ban Breathnach.

When a group of teachers in Vancouver started using gratitude journals in their classrooms last year, they all came back with amazing stories, says Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist at the Univeristy of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"One teacher said her grade 2 and 3 class went from writing 'I'm grateful for my Nintendo' to 'I'm grateful for the beautiful flowers I see on my walk' and 'I'm grateful for my mom.' And whenever her students were unhappy or upset, they would read their gratitude journals. They knew that it would help them feel more positive."

Think outside the box
Look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful, says Robert A. Emmons, a gratitude reasearcher and author – even if it means being grateful to someone such as a difficult colleague, for instance, who doesn't really deserve it.

Use an e-reminder
"I'm grateful for gratefulness.org," quips Helena van Nooten of Toronto, who gets a "word for the day" sent to her work email. "I find it helps me connect to something other than the stress of getting things done."

This story was originally titled "Can't Find Your Gratitude?" in the October 2010 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

This story was originally titled "Can't Find Your Gratitude" in the October 2010 issue.

Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

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Mind & Spirit

What are you grateful for?