Posted by: Katie Pagel | Director of Mental Performance
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.”
– Brene Brown
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the field of psychology often exists in the gray. When you’re unpacking the human experience and seeking to understand the human mind, there is an overabundance of “It depends.” I heard it all of the time in graduate school, and (between you and me) it drove me up the wall. Can someone just give me the right answer, please? This subjectivity is a feature of the field, not a bug of it; it is what bothers me about working in psych and what draws me to it. You see, I’m a hard scientist at heart. My undergraduate degree is in Biology, and I spent hours (and hours, and hours) sitting in a lab poring over microscope slides, fruit flies, and Petri dishes. At my core, I love black and white. Correct and incorrect. Needless to say, the human experience rarely lends itself to such rigid parameters.
What’s my point here? It isn’t to make all of you – and myself – question my career path (as it turns out, the gray is much more challenging – and fun – than the black and white). It illustrates that my brain remains on the hunt for glimpses of the ever-elusive, unarguable fact. Those practices or concepts that we know to be helpful for all of us as humans, without condition or asterisk.
One such psychological diamond, as it were, is gratitude. The evidence for the widespread physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of practicing gratitude is overwhelming. Want to be happier? Gratitude. Looking to have stronger relationships? Gratitude. Hoping for better sleep? Gratitude. As it turns out, whether you’re working to be (or develop) a better athlete or generally seeking greater fulfillment and satisfaction in your life, gratitude will help you get there. With that in mind, and given the time of the year, it seems particularly apropos to devote this month’s blog to the entirely legal performance-enhancing drug that is gratitude practice.
What Good is Gratitude?
The virtue of gratitude has been extolled by philosophers and religious leaders for centuries. Especially during the holiday season, gratitude messaging can get a bit heavy-handed (types the woman who selected this subject for her November blog). Most of us would agree that gratitude is a nice gesture. But what is its true function? Over the past two decades, psychologists and social scientists have held those century-old claims under the microscope and discovered a sizable (and growing) body of evidence for the measurable benefits of gratitude. With that, let’s highlight a few of the benefits reaped by individuals who have engaged in as little as two to three weeks of consistent gratitude practice:
- Stronger immune system
- Less bothered by aches, pains, and other common health complaints
- Lower blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Better overall physical health
- Higher levels of positive emotions like happiness, optimism, joy, and pleasure
- Reduction in toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret
- Enhanced feelings of calm, alertness, and focus
- Greater motivation, determination, and progress toward personal goals
- Reduction in stress
- Increase in emotional resilience, creativity, decision-making skills, and self-esteem
- Greater overall life satisfaction
- Experience more new and lasting relationships
- More helpful, generous, forgiving, and compassionate
- Feel less lonely, isolated, entitled, and aggressive
- Experience an increase in empathy
- Exhibit less social comparison
If you read through that – significantly abbreviated – list without coming across a single benefit you could stand to reap, hats off to you (or, more likely, read it again). Considering youth athletes in particular: On top of keeping their bodies healthier (a “pro” that should not be taken for granted in today’s age of early specialization and overtraining), gratitude boosts a number of factors that I see lacking in our athletes literally every day. Hyper-comparison, poor self-esteem, pessimism, a lack of decision-making skills, shaky resilience, and disconnection are a handful of features of today’s youth that plague their development not only as athletes but as people. Knowing that there is a single behavior (that can be executed in under five minutes!) that can lead to gains in all of these spaces and more for our kids? Sign me up!
The benefits of gratitude are so well documented that many researchers have moved toward a new question: How does a practice as simple as gratitude repeatedly produce all of those flashy benefits? While the answer isn’t clear-cut (psychology, am I right?), one piece of the puzzle is certainly the effect that consistent gratitude practice has on our brains. Not only does gratitude stimulate an in-the-moment release of serotonin and dopamine (positively impacting mood, willpower, and motivation), but consistent gratitude practice literally re-wires our brain to focus on what’s going well over what is not. Such an optimistic outlook makes us more stress-resistant, a factor that has proven time and again to be a massive player in our mental and physical health over time.
To fully explain gratitude’s MO, we must look past the hard wiring and toward two other psychological diamonds: Connection and Presence.
Gratitude is commonly described as having two components; the first being an affirmation of goodness, and the second being a recognition that the sources of that goodness are outside of ourselves.* I would venture that habitually looking beyond ourselves to appreciate the people, places, and things we have in our life would prompt greater feelings of true connection. Such quality connection has been identified as one of the strongest predictors of physical health, emotional well-being, and overall life quality and longevity.
Gratitude also demands our attention be placed in the present moment. It isn’t a secret that people today are notoriously bad at being present. What’s more, research shows that our emotional systems, like novelty and change, which causes positive emotions to wear off quickly; we adapt to positive life circumstances so that what was new and exciting is soon every day and monotonous. Gratitude disrupts this; it makes us pause and appreciate the value of something. Borrowing from Dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude ultimately allows us to participate more in life; instead of adapting to goodness, it asks us to celebrate it. In a world where we spend endless hours consuming and observing things – television, social media, podcasts – gratitude invites us to pay greater attention to the here and now, allowing us to be less of a spectator of our life and more of an active participant. Unsurprisingly, all of these aspects combine to make a massive positive impact on our mental and physical health.
Many of us have heard the adage an “attitude of gratitude.” While I applaud whoever came up with that phrase (it’s very catchy), it misses the mark. Holding an attitude of something does not always translate to engaging in behavior around that thing.** In the case of gratitude, we must make it a true practice to earn the full gains.
Let’s pause and consider a test subject: Me. As I’m penning this blog, I have known about the benefits of gratitude practice for years. I’ve shared it with dozens of clients and held them accountable for building this habit. I’ve seen the benefits of it firsthand (for them as people and performers). And yet: Do I currently write in a gratitude journal? No. No, I do not. I hope to change that by the time you are reading this blog, but as of right now: Crickets. I know, I know! The hypocrisy! But we all know this is not uncommon. We each have a list of things that we know we should/should not do that we nonetheless don’t/continue to do (human beings, I swear!). So why does a practice that is so simple prove far from easy?
For some, it’s too touchy-feely. Too Hallmark (to be clear: This isn’t the case for me. I live for Hallmark.). Others feel like they shouldn’t have to be grateful for things they’ve worked to earn. If you hold these feelings, they’re yours to unpack. A major contributor to the struggle is this: Practicing gratitude goes against hard-wired human nature and societal norms. Humans have a biologically programmed negativity bias. This stems from way back in the cavepeople’s days, where if we chose to bask in the good instead of staying vigilant for a threat, we’d enjoy a beautiful sunset just before becoming dinner for a sabertooth. Though we no longer run into many apex predators, the psychological ripple effects of this past reality make gratitude hard. Set this against the backdrop of a society fueled by scarcity – a culture of never enough – and it’s no wonder we struggle with gratitude. It is antithetical to this scarcity narrative. And finally: It’s vulnerable. Once you express gratitude, you’re clearly acknowledging that you have something (or someone) to lose. And that’s scary. It’s also true – you very well could lose what you are grateful for! But guess what? You can lose it even if you don’t say you’re grateful for it (and it doesn’t hurt any less).
All of this to say: If gratitude feels hard, that’s normal. But just because our gratitude muscles are weak doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise them. So how do we do that? The good news: It really is simple. Here are a handful of different ways you can incorporate gratitude into your day:
- Gratitude Journal: Take five minutes every day to jot down three things that you are grateful for. Each day, strive for as much specificity and uniqueness as you can.
- Gratitude Art: Not a fan of writing? No problem. Express your gratitude through a different medium: Draw a picture. Take a photo. Choreograph a dance. And – if you’re willing – share it with others!
- Group Gratitude: At the start of practice, to open a meeting, or gathered around the dinner table, have each person share one thing that they are grateful for and why.
- Personal Gratitude: Pick a specific time that you will pause every day and say, “Today I am grateful for _____ .” Or, open your day with a simple gratitude meditation: Jot down a handful of things you’re grateful for, and then hold them in your mind one by one and let your appreciation for them and what they add to your life fill you up.
And With That…
It all comes down to this: Gratitude is good. It’s good for us as individuals, it’s good for our kids, it’s good for our teams (on the field or at work), and it’s good for the people we serve. To be clear – I am by no means pointing to gratitude as a magical mental health cure-all because it is not (nothing is). I’m also not suggesting gratitude trumps all other emotions; we can feel grateful and other things. What gratitude is, though, is a simple, elegant, and incredibly powerful tool that we can wield to infuse more joy and meaning into our lives. While creating a habit of gratitude practice isn’t always easy, it is certainly worth the effort.
And in the name of putting forth that effort, I’ll end with this: I am grateful to each of you who read this blog and appreciate your commitment to bettering yourself, your athlete(s), and this club. I am lucky to have this platform to connect with all of you, and am very thankful for those who spend some of their valuable time engaging with it.
For more on Gratitude, head over to Greater Good Magazine, or check out any of Brene Brown’s work, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Atlas of the Heart, or this video.
*From Dr. Robert Emmons, a world-leading expert on gratitude.
*A brilliant example of this from Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection: “It would be reasonable to say that I have a yoga attitude. The ideas and beliefs that guide my life are very in line with the ideas and beliefs that I associate with yoga. I value mindfulness, breathing, and the body-mind-spirit connection. I even have yoga outfits. But, let me assure you, my yoga attitude and outfits don’t mean jack if you put me on a yoga mat and ask me to stand on my head or strike a pose. As I’m sitting here writing this, I’ve never practiced yoga…So where it really matters – on the mat – my yoga attitude doesn’t count for much.”