Joy is a finite resource, but it is one we can learn to refill by practicing gratitude. Bonus, with gratitude habits we can decrease our anxiety & improve our wellbeing.
“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I have been reading a lot about joy, fun, and happiness. It is because I am a nerd and know that cultivating these emotions is powerful for change and partly because I have found my kids to be somewhat frustrating recently. It seems like their only language right now is whine. My seven-year-old has also been telling me I need to be giving her more of whatever she seems to think she needs: sugar, screen time, more time before bedtime, etc. I have gotten frustrated with debating long-established rules with her and her younger sister. I have been losing my patience and yelling more than I would prefer.
I also find myself complaining about them, which puts my mind in a space where I prepped for their poor behavior, so I see it faster and react faster in a negative way. I can see my frustration coming, and sometimes I can breathe and control it, but lately, I want them to do what I asked them to do so we can get to the next to-do item (eating, reading, showering, etc.). In the effort to learn how to reverse my downward trend, I have been focusing on learning about joy and patience so those can occur more often in my life.
Brene Brown notes in The Gifts of Imperfection that when she found three powerful patterns when collecting data about joy and gratitude:
- Without exception, all people who described living a joyful life practiced gratitude.
- Both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound by a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
- People were quick to point out the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a human emotion that’s connected to what is happening. Joy is a spiritual way of engaging with the world connected to practicing gratitude.
Gratitude is strongly related to well-being in research. The reasons why gratitude would affect us physically are still cloudy. Researchers know that those who are regularly practicing gratitude cope better with stress, sleep better, and have better relationships. The keyword in the last sentence is PRACTICE.
Attitude Practice of Gratitude
You can’t be filled up once with gratitude and done. Regularly experiencing joy and gratitude will require some work as they will drain out of us like water through a strainer, whereas fear tends to be just large enough to clog the holes and swirl around until our emotions overflow. Overflowing emotions is something I can definitely relate to lately. We have to do the work to pull the fear out because it blocks the joy.
I think that it is important to point out that regardless of how good we get at filling ourselves up, we will not consistently experience joy and happiness all the time. Instead, the goal is to give ourselves tools to avoid personal overflow and splashing unregulated emotions all over those we love. Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project discusses her year-long journey to be happier more often instead of living in a place where she was not particularly unhappy but not as happy or joyful as she wanted to be. The Happiness Project and The Gift of Imperfection discuss that joy and happiness are cultivated habits that do not appear overnight. It is the result of tenacious hope combined with tiny actions on a regular basis that pushes us into the space where joy and happiness exist more often than fear and depression.
“Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.”Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Practice for Joy vs. Dress Rehearsing Tragedy
One aspect of life that I can point to and say, “Yep, there is my anxiety right there,” is the anticipated fear I experience for my children. Often I lay down in bed, especially if I had a good day, and instead of thinking about what went on in the day or to-do lists for tomorrow, my brain switches to catastrophizing something horrible. Seriously my imagination is exceptionally vivid. I believe it would be in contention for an Oscar for special effects. In an article in Science magazine, a study found that our minds wander about 50% of our day, and when we allow our minds to wander, we are less happy. We easily enter the catastrophic mind space where the worst-case scenario is the only scenario. Brene Brown calls this dress rehearsing tragedy and that the main way to combat this is to (cue broken record) practice gratitude.
It is so easy to spiral into the space that we will never be good enough or diligent enough or ____enough to get out of dress rehearsing tragedy or our anxiety. We are insufficient for the task of being happier. But we’re wrong. If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to experience joy, we are missing out on the things that can sustain us through the hard times. Lynne Twist wrote in The Soul of Money:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of.… We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work…We don’t have enough weekends. Of course, we don’t have enough money—ever. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough—ever. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack.… What begins as a simple expression of the hurried life, or even the challenged life, grows into the great justification for an unfulfilled life.
This is Your Brain on Fear…Any Questions?
You can be shaped by the belief that you are insufficient every day you step out of bed and that dress rehearsing various tragedies in your head is ordinary. Or you can be shaped by joy and gratitude. When storms hit, what you have habitually turned to, insufficiency, fear, or gratitude, will shape how you respond. Your example can also shape how those you love respond as well. It turns out that high school students who regularly practice gratitude have a higher grade point average, life satisfaction, social integration, and a lower risk of depression.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we understand how our brain changes the entire game. The brain has plasticity, meaning connections can be made, unmade, and remade. The brain is moldable, and you can strengthen connections or make them weaker. You can learn to be grateful regularly, and it will start to become automatic, but first, you have to make it a habit.
All of the journals that I have used over the past three years since I have started attempting to make journaling a part of my daily life have a line for “What are you grateful for today?” Based on everything that you have just read, you should understand why this item has been included. Even before I started trying to journal, I have sporadically had the habit of starting my day or ending my day by thinking about 3-5 things I was grateful for in my life. Notice how I used the words ‘try’ and ‘sporadically,’ so this week’s action step is as much for me as anyone else.
I am going to use family time at the end of the day, along with a spare chalkboard I have for each of us to write down what we are grateful for in our lives. I will also use Brene Brown’s suggestion of combating dress rehearsing tragedy by saying out loud, “I am enough and I am so grateful for ________” in order to increase my joy for tomorrow AND get to sleep with good thoughts dancing through my head. Let’s hold each other accountable shall we?
Want more suggestions on Gratitude Habit Ideas? Check out this link
Have more anxiety and depression than can be tackled by instilling a gratitude habit? Look for a local counselor. They can be some of the best coaches/accountability partners for getting out of a bad spot and into a place where you can steadily work towards a joyful life with these techniques.