Fostering gratitude and optimism

What are some of the first two words your mama taught you? After pressuring you for weeks to spit out ‘MAMA’?

Thank you.

Two of the easiest words in the English language, but somewhere along the line they get lost. I think they get lost in the heartaches and in the disappointments and in the frustrations that life generally brings. Maybe we carry our manners to other people when they hold open the door for us, or to our grandma when she sends us a care package, or to our spouse when he takes out the trash. But do we carry it to the rest of our lives, on the inside? Do we spend time truly fostering gratefulness in our own lives?

Research from Martin Seligman and colleagues has found that gratitude and optimism are the two positive emotions that can decrease anxiety quicker than anything external. Isn’t that incredible? That just by taking a moment – a simple, quick, but genuine moment – to look at your life and pinpoint one or more things for which you are grateful, your heart-rate can go down and your outlook can improve?

Same goes for optimism. By taking a simple, quick, but genuine moment to be optimistic – realistically optimistic – about a situation, anxiety decreases and hopefulness increases. I’m not talking rose-colored glasses, not seeing things for what they are, blind, ignorant optimism that factors in nothing but empty hope. I’m talking about seeing a situation for what it is, and banking on an outcome that doesn’t fulfill your negativity quota for the day. Because maybe that’s one quota that’s overworked and maybe it’s time to start leaning into something more positive.

Seligman and friends’ research shows that people who focus on the good have better health, better relationships, are better leaders, and even live longer. Remember last week when I mentioned how stress can actually shrink your brain? I don’t know about you, but I want to live a long, good, healthy life with a normal-sized, well-functioning brain. 🙂

So how do we do this? How do we break habits of assuming the worst, of “just knowing” that something is going to turn out poorly? How do we instead move to the side of hope? To the side of gratitude and optimism? I have a few ideas.

1. Since it’s November, think of it this way: Whatever happens this month, at least you’re not a turkey. True story. Life can always be worse. And if you’re reading this, then you at least have internet (or a good data plan) on a connected device. You’re likely clothed and in a temperate dwelling. And you probably have enough food in your belly. Maybe you don’t have everything you want, but you have what you need to get through another day.

2. When all else fails, play the “At least” game. Something less than ideal has happened, but at least… For example, there’s a lot of traffic tonight, but at least I’m not the vehicle that was rear-ended and caused this back-up. Or, I can’t make it home for the holidays but at least I have FaceTime/Skype/Tango/etc. so I can see their faces.

3. Carve out five minutes – three if you’re in a real hurry – and pick three things for which you’re grateful. Write them down on an index card or a post-it and post them in a prominent place so you see them on a regular basis. We all need reminders. You can always change out what you’ve written down, but these three things can be like a cheat sheet when you need a quick hit.



4. Find the silver lining. Do you know where that phrase comes from? The sun is always shining. Sometimes it’s just covered by the clouds, but it creates the silver lining on the edge of the clouds to remind you that the light is just beyond the darkness. What a great way to look at challenges – the clouds are covering your sunshine = the darkness is covering your joy. But the sun is back there, giving the cloud a silver lining. There is something good in your situation, you just have to look for it. The sun is always shining, it just might be covered up for a little while. Find the silver lining until the light comes back from behind the gray.

These suggestions are meant to help you foster gratitude and optimism in your day-to-day life. Forbes and Huntington Post talk about it this week, too. Let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s never okay to whine, because we’re human and I want you to be genuine. But it’s the habits we care about. It’s the thinking patterns that make the difference. If I have a habit of being grateful for the different pieces of my life, I am more likely to have a healthier, happier heart and a better outlook on life. Some negativity might sneak in there on days or moments when I’m afraid or angry, but overall, if my habit, my pattern, is to see the good and be thankful for the good, the crankiness will go away a lot sooner and my life will be a lot better.

Happy Cooking these next two days! May your holiday tables be filled with love and laughter, joy and thanksgiving, among friends and family alike.


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