“But I don’t feel grateful!”
Gemma plopped down on the bed, tears trickling down her cheeks. It has been such a difficult year. She read that a regular gratitude practice increases happiness, and she went right to work to create one. She worked hard, putting reminder notes everywhere and diligently writing a list each night. She even tried to forecast ideas for the next day in case things did not happen on their own to cause gratitude. She understands she is responsible to cultivate her own happiness, but day after day, even with all her practice, it just does not seem to be working for her. Try as she might, she just does not feel anything when she creates her lists, and they do nothing to make her look forward to the day.
Can you relate to Gemma?
Popular psychology these days tends to make everything sound so cut-and-dried and easy, doesn’t it? Just write a list everyday and bam! You’ll be a happier, more grateful person! Sounds wonderful, but it is easier said than done for some people. Let me shed some light on a possible, not-so-obvious reason for this.
Despite how it may seem sometimes, emotions are not random, irritating sensations that come out of nowhere to inflict us with chaos and overwhelm. In fact, emotions are really rather biologically specific. In my next series, Wonderfully Wired, I describe the role and work of emotions a bit more detail. Emotions have very specific messages. They tell us something. However, if those messages are not attended to for long enough, the emotion gets infected, so to speak. In that case, emotions can increase or decrease in frequency, duration, or intensity, and they may also be directed at the wrong person or situation. When this happens often, or if a person has a history of trauma or high anxiety, they may actually disconnect from their emotions. Therefore, you may not even register pleasant, new, or lower-level emotions.
Let’s do an experiment. Think right now about the emotions of anger, fear, happiness, and sadness. Come up with an example of when you have felt each and think about them, one at a time, for at least fifteen to thirty seconds. Think about your angry situation to start. Where do you feel your anger in your body? Can you describe the sensations? When you feel this way, how do you usually respond? Do you try to distract away from the feelings? Shut them down? Or maybe you let them happen, attending them with curiosity rather than judgment? Whatever your method of response, take note of what you do with anger. Repeat this for the other emotions I mentioned.
What you just did was connect your attention to your awareness. These are not the same thing!
Whenever you do a rote task, such as driving the same path to work, cleaning your room, or making a cup of coffee, the front part of your brain, known technically as the dorsal-lateral pre-frontal cortex (DLPFC), or as I call it, “The Executive Assistant,” can check out. After all, you do not need a high level of attention to complete most mundane tasks. This part of the brain is easily overtaxed and uses a great deal of the overall energy in the brain. Problem is, when we are stressed or unaware of how to process emotions, the Executive Assistant gets used to taking extended breaks.
If you are like Gemma and writing a list of nice things that happen to you every day just does nothing to float your boat, add one or more of these practices to your routine:
Mindfulness of Emotion
When you write out your gratitude list, take some time to do a body scan or to survey each of your senses as you visually imagine the thing you are writing. For example, suppose your boss brought everyone a cup of coffee from your favorite coffee shop. As you write, “Boss brought us coffee,” visually return to the scene. Smell the coffee. Feel the warmth of the cup in your hand. See the nice little flower the Barista made in foam. Really taste (yes, now, hours later) the flavor of the brew. Listen to the laughter and kind words as everyone expresses their thanks. Tune in, really tune in with your whole body.
Listen to Yourself
Make it a habit to read your gratitude list out loud to yourself a couple times every day. The more of your senses you use, the quicker it will sink in. Writing uses sight and touch (to a degree), but if you say it out loud, you add hearing, as well.
Practice Naming Emotions in General
Gratitude is a powerful emotion, even if it does not feel strong in your body. Therefore, it could help to start paying attention and connecting to all your emotions. Two or three times a day, check in and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Do not reserve this kind of check-in only when you are in distress. Try to catch yourself feeling good, as well. Name your emotion. Name it and try to locate it in your body.
We humans are complex beings with brains that prefer to categorize. If we are not careful, we will let this trick us into thinking ourselves much simpler than we actually are. Positive psychology teaches us the power of cultivating emotions. It takes time, effort, and practice to do so — but it is a worthy pursuit. Give it a try!
Explain why it is not just the body, but we do these things so we can move things from conscious to unconscious, making them part of who we are — but the feels just help us get there.
Originally published at https://potentialfinders.com on February 4, 2021.