Beloved country crooner Willie Nelson once famously said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around." This opportunity for personal transformation is available to each of us, as Stephanie Lopez illuminated in a recent iRest sangha session.
Sounds great, you may be thinking, but how? It can be awfully tricky to be thankful when life isn’t going our way. In an era that has brought heightened daily tension, the risk of life-threatening illness, and painful lifestyle changes, the suggestion to linger in gratitude might seem presumptuous—even downright absurd.
It’s hard to argue with science, though. According to multiple studies, taking time to notice the better parts of life can have dramatic effects. After a single session of gratitude meditation, practitioners experienced decreased depression, higher levels of well being, greater trust in strangers, and improved sleep quality. In short, gratitude is good for what ails us.
Alas, we humans often have a hard time finding good, a fact for which there is a biological explanation. Since the dawn of history, our brains have been programmed with a negativity bias to carefully note potential threats and keep us out of harm's way. To balance this primal sense of caution with more evolved, conscious thinking is certainly a task—but one that is worthwhile, according to experts.
One such expert is neurologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, who offers this helpful guide to finding gratitude. To relish any experience and turn it into one that produces optimal happiness, Hanson recommends breaking the process into four basic steps:
- Have a good experience.
- Enrich the experience. Spend time absorbing it. Let the senses come alive.
- Intentionally let the experience sink in and be encoded into your neural structure.
- Mentally link the experience with something challenging.
The key here is attention. In order to be changed by life’s delights, we are invited to notice them and stay with our positive feelings. A meditation practice like iRest, which offers a deep sensory exploration, can greatly enrich this process.
In the iconic book Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicled his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” With this wisdom in mind, let us each choose the path to greater joy and well-being—beginning in gratitude.