Lesson II: Mindful Gratitude to Create Resilience: Savoring the Good

“I will never talk about joy without talking about gratitude… I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

  -Dr. Brene Brown

It was so lovely to hear all of the “beautiful moments” individuals shared in this Mindful Gratitude workshop, from happy memories conjured from the smell of freshly cut grass to laughing out loud in a moment of joy.  I have felt honored to learn more about what brings others’ a sense of awe along their paths.  One thing became clear as we discussed gratitude: it is much more than a thank you: it is a sense of wonder at the human experience.

Below you will find the lesson for the second mindfulness workshop I hosted for teachers and staff.  Next week I will host a workshop on gratitude for adversity and will post the lesson soon after.

Lesson Plan

  1. Participants will complete the “Entrance Ticket
    • PART I: Consider your experience with mindfulness and silence over the last couple of weeks. In three to five lines, describe your experience in the form of a metaphor or an analogy. This can be in complete sentences or in the form or prose, but it can also take the any form you choose- this might be sentence fragments, single words, or a form of poetry.  For example, in the lesson I posted online, I compared the brain’s neural pathways to tributaries and rivers because both are ever changing and both create a “flow,” either in the physical sense or in our thoughts and actions.  
    • PART II: Name one insight you have had about yourself or the world through your journaling, the mindfulness quiz, and the intentions you have set for yourself?   What was most helpful in your gaining insight?
  2. Participants can share a line, word or phrase of this entrance ticket, while also introducing themselves and describing their experience with mindfulness thus far.
  3. Five minute mindfulness practice as a group
  4. Read “What is Gratitude” and watch the gratitude video

What is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, a renowned expert in the field, defines gratitude as an affirmation “that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received” and that “the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves” (“What is Gratitude”). The sources might be other people, society, the time and place one was born, or even a higher power- whatever one may believe that to include.

Gratitude practice includes:

  • Relishing good experiences in daily life
  • Recognizing life challenges as opportunities for growth
  • Seeing the differences between what one has been given and the difficulties that you have avoided and others may face

Building on these characteristics and definitions, gratitude is more than saying “thank you,” and it is more than recognizing when something exceptional happens and appreciating it. Gratitude is about experiencing the awe of the everyday human experience- the good and the bad. When one is able to do this, gratitude will naturally follow.  

In an interview with the Huffington Post, renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield eloquently stated gratitude as follows,

We’ve been given the extraordinary privilege of incarnating as human beings — and of course the human incarnation entails the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, as it says in the Tao Te Ching — but with it we have the privilege of the lavender color at sunset, the taste of a tangerine in our mouth, and the almost unbearable beauty of life around us, along with its troubles. It keeps recreating itself. We can either be lost in … the “body of fear,” which brings suffering to us and to others — or we can bring the quality of love and appreciation, which I would call gratitude, to life.

5.  Afterward, reflect upon the images and phrases in the video and reading. What connected with you personally? What reactions did you notice?

6.  Read “What Are the Physical and Emotional Benefits of Gratitude” and “How Does Gratitude Work?” and “Why Do We Need a Mindfulness Practice?”

What Are the Physical and Emotional Benefits of Mindful Gratitude?

There is mounting and significant research showing the benefits of mindful gratitude practice, including a longer lifespan and a better overall quality of life.

These include:

Physical Benefits:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • More effective immune system (fewer illnesses and diseases)
  • Better sleep

Emotional Benefits:

  • Increased resilience
  • Reduced anxiety and depression
  • Increased positive emotions such as happiness and optimism
  • Strengthened relationships
  • Decreased loneliness and isolation
  • Increased altruism

How Does Gratitude Work?

Pondering and reflecting upon positive experiences strengthens the neural patterns that create positive experiences in general, which fortifies resilience in individuals. In fact, individuals with a gratitude practice have more positive emotional experiences overall and live seven to nine years longer on average.

In addition, if gratitude leads to additional felt connection to others, it strengthens the vagus nerve response. A stronger vagus response is connected to regulating blood pressure and breathing and the release of oxytocin, which is a social bonding chemical. These physiological responses can decrease health risks and increase feelings of wellbeing.  

Why Do We Need a “Mindful Gratitude Practice”?    

Due to evolution, our minds have a natural “fear response” that is triggered when anything unexpected happens, be it positive or negative. How one perceives this fear response will determine how long the individual experiences negative physical and emotional reactions from it.

Fear- of the imminent, of others’ reactions, of our own past or future failures- is equivalent to stress, and stress can take a tremendous physical and emotional toll. It’s effects range from lower immune system to an early death. However, our reaction to the fear response can change the health implications. Researcher Kelly McGonical states in her famous TEDTalk that, “believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.”       

Our minds and evolutionary responses, however, work against our ability to interpret experiences positively. In The New York Times, Tony Schwartz describes the phenomenon of initial negative response as “negativity bias,” citing psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.”

Schwartz extrapolates on the implications of this bias, “It’s a simple concept: we construct our internal reality – our experience of the world — in large part by where we put our attention. More often than we recognize, we can make that choice consciously and intentionally. Doing so influences not just how we feel, but also how we perform, individually and collaboratively.”

Gratitude, or appreciation, can counteract this fear-based negativity bias and lower stress levels by helping individuals to reframe negative experiences and emphasize positive ones. Through gratitude practices, the brain evolves and changes in ways that eventually lead to a more joyful and healthy life.

7.  As participants finish, have them reflect upon two questions

  •  What has fear kept you from doing?
  • What is the connection or relationship between fear and gratitude?

8.  Discuss responses to the “connections and relationships” individuals identified between fear and gratitude

9.  Read “How Can One Sincerely Recognize and Appreciate the Good in Life?” and “What Are Some Strategies to Increase Mindful Gratitude and Resilience?”

How Can One Sincerely Recognize and Appreciate the Good in Life?

Experiencing awe at one’s daily existence as a human being is both an extremely simple idea and a very difficult practice. On one hand, there are millions of moments and gifts for which we can each be grateful every day, from the smile on the face of a loved one to the ability to drink clean, cold water out of a faucet without having to walk for miles or live in fear of death from water-borne illness.

At the same time, it is so easy to dismiss the mundane and lose touch with the fact that existence is a gift, a transient gift. Biologically, we are programmed to see the extremes and dismiss the normal. So much life is lost due to lack of mindful attention, lack of gratitude, for the fleeting beauty of the ordinary.

One way to recognize the good is to see the many alternatives through the eyes of others. Imagine what it might have felt like the coldest days of winter to sleep on a sidewalk instead of a warm home. Recognize the many who have lost (or never had) the ability to walk on two legs under their own power or run playfully in the park with children. These situations are very real to many people in the world.

Another strategy for embracing daily gratitude is to let go of the urge to, in the words of Brene Brown, “dress rehearse tragedy.” Thinking about the myriad of ways that things can go wrong or holding back from truly and fully engaging in joyful moments for fear of when those moments will end robs us of appreciation and gratitude.

The bottom line is this: there is only now.

Studies show that memories are reconstructed, which means they change over time and are less reliable than we believe. In addition, no matter how intelligent one may be, there is not a person in the world who can tell you what will happen tomorrow with any accuracy. When the illusions of the past and the obsession with the future are let go, it is so much easier to be fully present and appreciative of the here and now.  

What are Some Strategies to Increase Mindful Gratitude and Resilience?

Beautiful Moments Journaling: This is my suggested alternative to a “gratitude journal,” which I found became routine and at times redundant for me. This process also better activates the brain’s neural circuitry for positive experiences because it includes more imagery and sensory recall.

  • At the end of the day, recall your most “beautiful moments” and list them in your journal. For me, these have included standing on a riverbank and watching the sun sparkle on the water, playing with my children on the floor and hearing my toddler’s laughter, receiving a warm sentiment from a friend or colleague, noticing the moment when I learn something new, or taking advantage of the opportunity to point out a strength or express empathy to someone important to me. Yours may be completely different, but everyone has these moments- it is just a matter of noticing.
  • Choose one moment (or more) and fully recreate the sights, smells, physical sensations, sounds and especially the emotions, in your mind and write what you experienced in your journal.
  • If you do not have time to write down all of the sensory details just recall them mentally
  • These journal entries and memories can be recalled and referred back to in times of difficulty to improve resilience.

Other Gratitude Building Activities:

  • Express gratitude when you recognize someone has done or said something that influenced you in a positive way
    • Write letters, send emails, verbally express your gratitude
  • Focus on positive sensations in daily life- the warm steam rising on the first cup of coffee; the crisp, sweet taste of an apple; the breeze through a window; or the cool cotton of bed sheets when you lay down to sleep
  • Provide yourself with gratitude cues or reminders- such as a post-it note on your computer

10.  When participants finish have them reflect upon and write down three sensory experiences or moments that have inspired awe and gratitude in the last 24-48 hours

11.  Share out one or more of these experiences

12.  Give and explain the Assignment for Mindful Gratitude:

Assignment for the Next Two Weeks

Part I: Are you grateful?

  • Take the gratefulness quiz from Greater Good from UC Berkeley referenced in your “Mindful Gratitude to Create Resilience” handout
  • Print out your results and reflect upon what you learned about yourself from this quiz (in a short writing)

Part II: Practicing mindful gratitude

  • Set an intention to notice where you find beauty and joy in your daily life for the next week; remind yourself daily of this intention in the mornings and at any point throughout the day.
  • Commit to five to ten minutes of silent mindfulness practice and five to ten minutes of journaling on how your intention and practice are developing for five days of seven each week for the next two weeks
  • After week one, you may decide on a more individualized intention for yourself rather than noticing silence. For example: creating space for patience, noticing others emotions etc.  

10.  Have participants complete the 3-2-1 Exit Ticket before leaving

Resources:

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