How To Develop An Attitude of Gratitude

11/21/2016 12:04 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2016

It’s not easy to maintain an attitude of gratitude and consistently remind ourselves of all the positivity that we have in our lives, rather than focus on all that is lacking and absent. It’s applicable in our relationships too. For example, when someone is complimentary to us, it may be challenging to be grateful because we present with a mix of feelings, including a combination of feeling flattered and uncomfortable all at the same time. It’s far from easy to feel gratitude and remain grateful overtime. Why is this and what can we do about it?

Our mind has everything to do with it. In what ways?

  • We tend to focus on what is not going right, rather than what is going right. The things that aren’t going right are worried about, contemplated about and processed through. Those moments, however challenging, are most often the ones that get imprinted into our memories. Notice that you tend to readily remember past challenging moments, rather than more joyful ones. It’s just what our minds do. We can recall those negative and painful feelings and experiences more readily and they tend to be remembered more vividly.
  • Our mind always seeks to protect us. Those challenging moments will be burnished in a desperate attempt and plea not to repeat those negative and painful circumstances and to hopefully learn from them for the future. Our mind is committed to keeping these moments alive to assist us with this task.
  • Our mind tends to generalize. We see things as all-encompassing, unilaterally, and typically with a dreaded negative slant, especially if you tend to be a negative, worried or analytical (think of every case scenario) thinker. If something goes wrong, how often do we say, “this is a horrible day” or “my day is ruined.” We don’t tend to think about this about a positive situation or moment. It doesn’t tend to carry over.

In relationships, we may be leery of being grateful and accepting and reciprocating graciousness. Why would this be the case?

  • We never learned how to be grateful. We don't know how to respond to circumstances and to others with gratitude. With the example of someone complimenting us, we get embarrassed and typically say thank you. Thank you becomes our go to pat response and we get concerned that we'll come across as self-serving, narcissistic or overly confident if we respond otherwise.
  • It lends to vulnerability in our relationships. If we’re the recipient of others graciousness, are being gracious, or are grateful, we’re emotionally letting others in, informing them that we like and appreciate them, and want more of what they’re giving to us. It subliminally communicates a lot about the intimacy and intensity in the relationship.
  • It sets up expectations in a relationship about what we want and need from others. This can lend to more feelings of vulnerability and fear of taking risk which can result in potential rejection.
  • It can create fear about the ability to maintain that level of graciousness and remain grateful overtime. In other words, if someone is showing thoughtfulness in the relationship, the other person may feel the need to step it up and reciprocate the same level of thoughtfulness in return. It may evoke overwhelming feelings, with the task perceived as arduous and cumbersome.
  • It can induce suspicion about the person’s motives for acting graciously and cause you to question whether you’re deserving of their or others graciousness, especially if you have been in or have a history of being in tenuous relationships.
  • Because of our individualized range and level of intensity in our emotions, we each may emotionally experience gratitude differently. For example, just because you may not feel it in an incredibly intense way, doesn’t mean that you can’t respond to it intently and considerately.

Our mind leads us in all different directions, distracting us from feeling gratitude, maintaining an attitude of gratitude and additionally acting gracious and receiving graciousness in our relationships. It doesn’t always allow us to effectively feel the feelings of gratitude, benefit from them and carry them over into our attitudes and actions.

What can we do to fortify an attitude of gratitude?

  • Make purposeful effort daily to be in the present moment (e.g., take mindfulness moments, meditate, write in a gratitude journal, etc.). Focus on what is going on right now in the here and now. Leave the past behind and the future to happen when it happens. Even if your mind gravitates there, which it naturally will, bring it back empathically and compassionately without criticism and judgment.
  • Notice and remind yourself that we tend to hold onto negative and painful memories. When joyous or momentous situations or circumstances arise, take extra time and effort to be there with them, feeling every feeling and acknowledging and reveling in the joy.
  • Acknowledge that our minds tend to generalize and polarize things. Make keen effort to see the full picture and focus on all aspects of a situation, including the favorable and positive aspects which are always there. Purposefully connect with your gratitude for these positive aspects. For example, practice saying that these are disappointing circumstances in the scheme of a generally lovely day.
  • Remind yourself that sending and receiving graciousness in a relationship can and will most likely evoke vulnerability and discomfort. It’s the risk we must be willing to take if we are to invest in relationships and get what we want from them.
  • In our relationships, we can make more of an effort to respond in connected relational ways and express gratitude. For example, when someone compliments you, you can say, "What you said was meaningful to me. I appreciate you noticing all the hard work I have been putting in." You can also take a mindful moment to reflect how the sentiment felt and what meaning it held for you. You can directly connect with feeling gratitude toward the sentiment, the connection and the relationship in general.
  • Always act from your core values and not necessarily from your thoughts and feelings. Even though you may not feel gratitude act graciously and ask yourself what you could have gratitude for and about. You may be suspicious about the intention but choose to react to the action. For example, if your core value is thoughtfulness, if someone is attempting to be caring, whether, in your opinion, they are acting caring, respond and act thoughtfully to them. If you see them primarily negatively, there’s no way to feel grateful and act graciously.

Because of our minds, we may be pulled toward negativity and toward the past and future. Choose to be grateful and consistently and diligently practice having an attitude of gratitude. We all can make strides to be in the present moment with our gratitude and working toward cultivating the habit of being grateful.

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