By Dave Rhea
There is no need to review a list of unfortunate occurrences situated between today and 365 days prior. We are universally well-aware that 2020 has been a challenge. Each of us have our particular experience of this past year, and undoubtedly, there are disappointments that run the gamut.
In the face of seemingly ubiquitous aggravation, dissatisfaction and disappointment, it is easy to get discouraged and personalize life’s vicissitudes. Unpleasant changes of circumstances or fortune are difficult and even sometimes impossible to ignore. Indeed, as community and organizational leaders, we Rotarians know that ignoring such change is not the best course of action.
So, what are we to do? In the face of unavoidable difficulty all across the spectrum of possibility, from the inconvenience of social distancing and mask-wearing to grieving the loss of a loved one, how are we to proceed? I propose an action that is simple, but sometimes not easy: Practice gratefulness.
It is proven in numerous studies that cultivating gratitude is helpful. For example, expressing appreciation to others is beneficial to both the giver and the receiver. It lightens the mood and tightens interpersonal bonds. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, “In Times of Crisis, a Little Thanks Goes a Long Way,” by Sabina Nawaz, “During a crisis, taking the time to thank others is vital to dampen loneliness, amp up social connections and generate generosity.”
The benefits of being outwardly thankful are surely not lost on any Rotary member. Being courteous and expressing appreciation is fundamental within the lexicon of successful, emotionally intelligent leaders. However, my purpose here is to go deeper – to create a lasting counterbalance in the face of difficulty.
Expressing gratitude needn’t be limited to outward action. In the area of positive psychology, many studies have shown that practicing gratitude – in other words, intentionally developing inward feelings of thankfulness and appreciation on an ongoing basis – has tangible benefits. Generally, those who engage in some form of gratitude-based contemplative practice are more resilient, optimistic and physiologically healthier, which is immediately helpful to the practitioner and vicariously helpful to those who are within his or her orbit.
In the article “The Neuroscience of Gratitude,” author Linda Roszak Burton, points out that through the practice of developing intentional gratitude, our brains are able to transform an increased sense well-being from a state to a trait, which is achieved within the neural circuitry in our brain. When we practice gratitude, we feel better because our brains release the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Over time, studies have demonstrated, it becomes hard-wired.
“The more we activate these ‘gratitude’ circuits, the stronger these neural pathways become,” Burton wrote. “Neurons that fire together wire together. That’s where neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout life – comes in. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”
How does one pursue a gratitude-based contemplative practice? To a certain degree, some of us already do this through prayer. Meditation, or attention-based mental training, is another practice that has gained societal acceptance and has proven to be beneficial to developing the subjective sense of well-being.
Another practice to consider is journaling. In a study by psychologists, Drs. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, three groups were asked to write a few sentences per week. One group wrote about negative subjective experience, another group wrote about topics that were emotionally neutral, and the third wrote about instances for which they were grateful.
“After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives,” their study concluded. “Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”
My resolution for the New Year is to be more diligent about practicing gratefulness, both inwardly and outwardly. Won’t you join me?