Spending just a few minutes a week focused on gratitude can yield weeks or even months of feeling happier and more content. And what better time to start than the holidays, when we reconnect with families and take stock of the past year.
That’s just one of the many benefits of mindfulness that Novant Health cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Fisher has recognized in the 10 years since he started practicing mindfulness meditation.
“My journey was to explore various types of meditation and mind-body practices … all of these things which I had never learned about in my medical education or growing up,” said Fisher, who practices at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute, Huntersville. “As I began to experiment with them, I recognized that there were changes happening in my ability to deal with the challenges of life and also to start noticing the joys in life. And then slowly, other people started to recognize the difference.”
Fisher found mindfulness when he was grieving the death of his best friend and sister, Andrea. He typed “How can I be happy again?” into Google, which produced a list of articles about the field of positive psychology. Many recommended meditation as a way to change your outlook. He gave it a shot.
Why worry when you can see a doctor?
“Gratitude = happiness” is actually an equation that comes from a research study of about 300 adults. They all received psychotherapy, but one group was asked to write a weekly note of gratitude to someone for three weeks. A second group wrote their reflections on negative experiences each week.
The group that focused on gratitude – a facet of mindfulness – reported significantly better mental health at four-week and 12-week check-ins after the writing exercise ended.
“There is very strong research that says that if, starting tonight, you write down three things that you're grateful for from today, and you do that for a few weeks, your overall level of satisfaction with your life and your happiness level will increase significantly after a month,” he said.
That’s a pretty small investment in time for a such big return in benefits, Fisher said. Here’s how to get started.
Start a gratitude journal – or just write it down
Like the people in study, you can write thank-you notes to the people you appreciate. Or you could do the Three Good Things exercise created by Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology. This 10-minute nightly journaling exercise has three steps:
- Before you go to bed at night, think about three good things that happened to you that day.
- Write them down.
- Reflect on why those three good things happened, and write that down, too.
“If you have the skill of mindful attention, you can keep your attention focused on that thing that makes you feel grateful and appreciative,” Fisher explained. “And you can linger on it, or what we call savor, for even a few seconds until you start to feel it in your bones.”
If three things seem overwhelming, start with one and build up to three. No judgment. Hardwiring happiness is your goal, Fisher said.
Repeat after me, “I am grateful for _____.”
If writing isn’t your thing, then you can opt for meditation.
1. Find a comfortable, quiet spot, turn off your phone and shut out any other distractions.
2. Take a few deep, centering breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
3. Now, with each breath, repeat the mantra: I am grateful for ____. Do it five to 10 times. Fill in the blank with something new each time.
Again, start simple and build up. If 10 times seems overwhelming, start with three. Or repeat the same item of gratitude each time. No matter how many times you do it, Fisher said you should start to feel less anxious and more connected to others. And, of course, more grateful.
“Without mindful awareness, we may not see that gratitude is missing in our lives, and we want to be able to linger in our gratitude,” he said. “Mindfulness allows us to practice gratitude in an even more powerful way.”