Today, many words have become so yoked with modern yoga that we get numb to what they actually mean. For example, words like bliss, peace, and gratitude are plastered all over yoga garb and media platforms, touting yoga as the latest panacea. Lululemon even has its “Gratitude wrap”, as if buying an overpriced polyester garment will somehow contribute to your wellbeing. I must admit, however, that gratitude really is as magical as it is often made out to be.Gratitude, the acknowledgment of the things in life that you are thankful for, has gained the attention and approval of researchers looking into tools for improving well-being.
Our Negativity Bias
Evolution has gifted humans a double-edged sword: a negativity bias. That is, our brains are wired to be more strongly influenced by negative events, feelings, and thoughts than comparably positive information.1 We also give more mental weight to negative traits than comparable positive traits.1 This negativity bias has been essential to the survival of our species: it has allowed us to avoid unpleasant, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening circumstances.
For example, if I am walking through a forest and see a large object in the distance, it would be more beneficial to my survival to assume the object is a dangerous animal rather than a harmless bush. If I assume it’s a predator, regardless of whether I am right or wrong, I will take precautions and likely survive. If I assume it’s a harmless bush and I am wrong, then I am dead.
Our brains are wired to be more strongly influenced by negative events, feelings, and thoughts than comparably positive information;1 we also give more mental weight to negative traits than comparable positive traits
Of course, in our modern world, this negativity bias rarely protects us from danger. Instead, it creates a lot of unnecessary rumination and worry about events past, present, and future; indeed, our brains have wired our alert system so well that we are also incredibly good at worrying. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson summarize this in their book “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” by explaining how the brain’s emotional behaviour hub, the amygdala, allows us to ruminate on our worries:
“The amygdala connects strongly to brain circuitry for both focusing our attention and for intense emotional reactions. This dual role explains why, when we are in the grip of anxiety, we are also very distracted, especially by whatever is making us anxious. As the brain’s radar for threat, the amygdala rivets our attention on what it finds troubling. So when something worries or upsets us, our mind wanders over and over to that thing, even to the point of fixation.”
This means that not only are we very skilled at finding the negative in our circumstances and giving it more weight, but we are also expert worriers! Coupled together, our negativity bias and our worrisome nature make it very challenging and unnatural to notice and appreciate the glass-half-full perspective. Instead, this nature allows us to feel stressed, unhappy, and forever in search of a quick fix for some fleeting pleasure (think: Netflix binge, shopping, food, alcohol, drugs, whatever!).
If only there existed a tool we could use to help counteract our negativity bias. Fortunately, there is a bio-hack for improving well-being and contentment and it is surprisingly easy to incorporate into your daily life: gratitude!
Yoga philosophy and Patanjali’s eight-limbed path includes the concept of santosha loosely translated as contentment. Contentment isn’t something most people just have, it takes time, effort, and practice. In Nava Silton’s book “Scientific Concepts Behind Happiness, Kindness, and Empathy in Contemporary Society,” Silton states, “like farming, the cultivation of happiness takes time, focus, and effort […] cultivation of gratitude may be one of the most effective ways of harvesting happiness.”2
It may sound too easy, too good to be true, but a growing body of scientific literature is pointing to the efficacy of gratitude practice as a tool for improving mood, overall wellbeing, and greater optimism.3In fact, gratitude research has shown how gratitude practice can help foster relationships, heighten your sense of connection with others, and act more compassionately.4 Gratitude has also shown to improve sleep quality and duration!3,5 And who doesn’t want a better night’s sleep!?
Practice Gratitude, Practice Happiness
One of the most promising aspects of gratitude practice is that it is easy to implement and it is generally a “self-reinforcing” behaviour.3,6 This means people enjoy the practice and are thus more likely to make it a part of their routine. Here are some tips and tools for cultivating your practice.
1. Choose a Method
There are a couple of methods to choose for your gratitude practice. Your practice can be a written endeavor — either keeping track of the things you feel thankful for by hand in a journal or using an app (like ‘Grateful: a Gratitude Journal‘). Alternatively, your practice can be contemplative — simply taking a moment of your day to think of the things you feel grateful for. Regardless of the method you choose, I highly recommend you make it a daily habit.
2. Make Practice Habitual
To make sure you practice gratitude habitually, put it on a cue! For example, I choose to contemplate gratitude at the end of each yoga class and whenever my bell sounds to end my meditation session. This ensures that I practice at least once a day and that I never forget.
Opt for a cue that occurs daily — be it after brushing your teeth in the morning or after turning your phone on silent before going to bed.
3. Consider All Ends of the Spectrum
Allow yourself to include in your practice anything and everything that comes to mind. You don’t need to limit your contemplation to the big and life-changing themes. I have found that including anything — no matter how trivial they may seem — gives me a greater appreciation for the things I would not normally notice. For example, I am often grateful for my first sip of morning coffee, discovering a new song, a delicious piece of fruit, a cozy sweater, or even a nice breeze. During my practice, I am often surprised at how easily things come to mind.
4. Be Free to be Repetitive
Don’t worry if you find the same things come up again and again. You don’t need to think of something novel and creative every time you practice. Allow your nuggets of gratitude to emerge organically, even if it means you are grateful for the same things day after day. The purpose of the practice is not to force yourself to think of novel things, but instead, to notice and sit with whatever comes to mind.
5. Spread Gratitude
You don’t need to be a preacher of gratitude, but you can encourage others along the thankful path. When I realized the remarkably measurable payoff my personal practice delivered, I wanted my husband to benefit too. So, I began to share with him the things I was thankful for — especially when I was thankful for something he did or said. Then, I would ask him to contemplate what he was thankful for on a given day. Soon I found him coming to me without prompting to share his grateful thoughts. Evidently, gratitude is highly contagious so why not plant some thankful seeds and watch them prosper?
We can’t change the fact that millennia of evolution have gifted us with brains wired to notice, fixate, and worry on the negative. Fortunately, there is a very potent remedy — a small daily dose of gratitude practice does wonders to counteract your negative outlook. What I find so remarkable, is that unlike my meditation or movement practice, which takes time, effort, and dedication, gratitude only takes a moment and has a very lucrative bang for your buck. So find a daily cue and practice gratitude — you’ll be grateful you did.
Ito TA, Larsen JT, Smith NK, Cacioppo JT. Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998;75(4):887-900. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9825526. Accessed August 26, 2018.
Silton NR. Scientific Concepts Behind Happiness, Kindness, and Empathy in Contemporary Society. (Silton NR, ed.). IGI Global; 2019. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-5918-4.
Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AWA. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010;30(7):890-905. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005.
Algoe SB, Haidt J, Gable SL. Beyond reciprocity: gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion. 2008;8(3):425-429. doi:10.1037/1528-3518.104.22.1685.
Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;84(2):377-389. doi:10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1247.
Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. Am Psychol. 2005;60(5):410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410.