Years ago there was a best-selling book by Sara Ban Breathnach called Simple Abundance that suggested writing down 5 things a day that you were grateful for before you went to sleep at night. This has become a common and popular self-help exercise recommended by many other teachers, coaches and lecturers, including Tal Ben-Shahar, head of Happiness Studies at Harvard, and who wouldn’t want to listen to him?
But it is easy to brush aside how powerful the idea actually is. I dutifully committed to this habit in the 90’s about the time Breathnach wrote the book and have kept it up off and on over time. I notice I generally feel better when I am actively doing it because it keeps me in a grateful frame of mind. You begin to find yourself looking for things to be grateful for, mentally collecting your entries for later. It focuses your perception on the positive and in-the-now experiences. This fish tastes delicious, my tow head child makes my heart sing just now, I am so happy to receive this letter. Now I love re-reading these gratitude journals – they are like snapshots of everyday pleasures and blessings at a particular time. I feel grateful all over again, the second time around.
The mindset itself and the feeling state it creates are the real gift. Meister Eckhart wrote that “Thank You” was a perfectly sufficient prayer. Five very specific thank you’s before bed serve as a powerful reminder of how good continually flows to us, even on what might have been an otherwise challenging day.
Dr. Joe Spinoza, scientist and author of Evolve Your Brain, talks about how gratitude has an emotional signature that triggers a feeling state in the body of already having had a positive experience, the felt experience of the event as if it had actually happened. Focusing on gratitude rewires the body, in a sense, reconditioning it into a receiver of what is wanted and dreamed of. It takes us out of the frame of mind of worry and apprehension. Not only does this feel better, but it sets the stage for good to come to us. In this way, we truly are creators of our own experience and what we experience now begets more of that same kind of experience later.
We can cultivate a mindset of gratitude to create the feeling state of what we want before we ever even have it. It’s like priming the pump. I have a few guilty pleasures I indulge in in order to lift myself out of a dreary mood, harmless escapes that are actually great examples of “creating the feeling state” of what I want. My top favorite is looking at real estate, for the most part in places I will never live, but still I enjoy the excursion into an alternate life, and actually part of the fun is – never say never.
So, for instance, after this past winter in New England, which was a particularly grueling one, we visited Santa Fe, New Mexico just as it was at its spring peak. Santa Fe was a place I never expected to appreciate myself, despite rave reviews from just about anybody who has ever been there, since I am a complete water junkie and after all, the desert is bone dry. To my surprise, I loved it and immediately imagined myself living there one day, in the future, by obsessively combing through real estate on the internet. To this day, I receive listings automatically in my inbox and I love comparing my options as if I were actually going to relocate some years away. At about the same time this fantasy first preoccupied me, I learned that my youngest son would be working in Boston and not migrating West like all of his siblings. Naturally leaving New England became out of the question! Quickly switching gears, I thought perhaps I would love owning a house on a lake in New Hampshire or Maine instead! This idea required more delicious hours spent perusing listings and comparing cottage sizes, shore footage, and depths of lakes, etc.
On the one hand, I consider that spending my time this way is a complete and utter waste…but is it? Isn’t it just an exercise in creating the feeling state of what I truly want? The information, as always, is in the feeling. When I get pulled like that into a fantasy of another way of living, what is my soul telling me I am hungry for? I crave majestic and timeless views of nature and water that soothe my anxiety. I crave the expansive feeling of possibility that reminds and reassures me that life always holds surprises and that our lives are never set in stone – we can always change direction, choose again, try on ideas and see whether they resonate. Ultimately, when I return to my work or responsibilities, I feel a charge of potential and possibility that energizes me. And I am always grateful for that.