November 13, 2012
The other night I started a new tradition in my home: I asked my 6-year-old son to tell me what he's grateful for before he goes to sleep.
"What does 'grateful' mean?" he asked.
"The things that make you happy," I said.
His eyes beamed, and he delivered a list that was full of simple pleasures — from the cookie he had at dessert, to the walk we took in the woods. I then tried to do the same thing before I fell asleep later that night, and all I could think of was an unresolved disagreement with a friend.
So how can we get on the path of gratitude when the sludge of everyday life gets in the way?
"As a physician, I always talk about gratitude," said Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and the author of "Positive Energy: 10 Extraordinary Prescriptions for Transforming Fatigue, Stress, and Fear into Vibrance, Strength, and Love" (Three Rivers Press). "I'm a psychiatrist, so the basis for healing is to not talk about what's not going right but to focus on even the tiniest things that are going right. That's a shift into positive mental health."
Orloff said it's easier for the body to pick up on negative emotions rather than the positive because "there's a stronger signal" from stress, disasters, negativity and fear.
"When you're going down the freeway, you're more likely to see the terrible accident than the happy family driving by in the car next to you," Orloff said. "That's just the nature of consciousness. So you have to know that so you can take control of your mind and shift yourself out of fear and out of despair and into gratitude even when nothing is going right."
Here are some of Orloff's tips for getting past the obstacles on the path to gratitude.
Give the gift of service. "When you're feeling at your worst, even if you don't feel like it, just help someone in some small way," Orloff said. "Open the door for somebody, or smile at a stranger. Hold the elevator door, or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Let somebody go ahead of you in a long line, particularly during the holidays when we're all in a rush. See how you can be of service to somebody. It immediately takes you out of misery and into your heart."
Establish boundaries. "If you have people in your life who suck the energy from you or do you wrong, I call these energy vampires. Choose not to get into that unhealthy, dysfunctional exchange," Orloff said. "It could be just constraining yourself and not going for their bait when they engage. Then they become less interested and will move on to someone else."
Forgive someone. "Resentments eat away at your body, and they cause stress hormones to surge through your system," Orloff said. "Someone who wrongs you or mistreats you, these are not the actions of a happy person. So if you can find a little forgiveness for the blatant shortcomings of others — and this is not to say what they did was right — but when you're the bigger person, you're free to get out of resentment and let in the joy."
Find more room to play. "People get overly serious about this material world, but you have to play a little too," Orloff said. "Go to the movies, go for a walk, awaken your inner child and take some time off from your problems. And be around people who like to laugh. Laughter is such a great way to embrace gratitude."
Pay it forward. "I leave little bits of money for people all the time," Orloff said. "I've done this for years. I'll be in a bathroom and I'll leave $5 dollars or $1, maybe in the plant in an office. When someone finds it, that makes them happy and they feel lucky. It's a way of creating abundance."
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