Over the past several years neuroscience studies have reinforced the understanding of the effectiveness of ancient wisdom practices such as meditation, yoga, and gratitude. These studies have also turned a few things on their head, including finding that what we think of as the standard practice of gratitude is not the most effective way to stimulate feel good chemicals which lead to positive change.
Most of us know that giving gratitude for our lives has almost endless benefits to health, relationships, success, and resilience. Regularly being grateful for our lives and all the good things we notice creates a positive attitude of gratitude and makes us happier and more joyful. It was a surprise to find that this "normal" practice of being grateful for our lives is not as powerful as actually receiving genuine gratitude for something we’ve done for someone else.
At first this was shocking. Did it mean everything we had been writing about as we were creating Gratitude Mojo as an advance journal/workbook for improving our lives was wrong? How could that be? After digging a little deeper, however, it turned out not to be an "either/or" but more reasonably a "both/and” that leads to more powerful insights and changes.
When we say “thank you” to someone or the world around us, it changes us; when someone says “thank you” to us in a genuine, heartfelt way, it changes us even more radically. There is, however, a challenge to this aspect of gratitude. Most of us do not save lives everyday or even help someone so dramatically that they pour out their thanks in a way that turns on our gratitude chemicals. The irregular nature of receiving significant gratitude from others seems like a barrier to building a regular gratitude practice that could transform our lives.
The bridge is stories ... gratitude stories.
Our brains treat stories as if they were actually happening. The sports world recognized this long ago and actually spends a good deal of training time visualizing and perfecting form and style. Andrew Huberman, professor, podcaster, and neuroscientist from the Stanford University School of Medicine shares a method for integrating this high-power gratitude through story practice, and recommends retelling ourselves this story three times a week.
How to create your gratitude story: 3 Questions
First, you need a story that touches you … where YOU are the main character and received heart-felt gratitude for something you’ve done to help another person. While it does not need to be a story of great courage or daring, the expressed gratitude does needs to touch you, and help you understand how much what you did meant to someone else.
The story that I’ve been working with for the past year comes from Bruce (not his real name). I worked with Bruce many years ago. He was young and worked in our mail room. I was told to go to Bruce if I needed computer help, which I did, and over time, discovered that he was friendly, helpful and had a knack for understanding computers and helping others use them. Those talents weren’t essential in his mail room position and I began to suggest that he go back to school or look for a better fitting job.
Bruce and I didn’t know each other long as I wound up moving to a different city and job. However, twenty-five years later, I received a note from him telling me he had gone back to school and was now working at a job he loved working with computers. He had also married and had children. He was living the life of his dreams.
In his note, he thanked me generously for encouraging him to make this life change. His note amazed me because I had no idea that what I had said to him had even been heard, let alone encouraged him to make a huge change in his life. His note touched me deeply and when I started looking for my gratitude story, I knew this one was it.
As I’ve worked with this story over the past several months, I’ve visualized Bruce's life transformation spiraling outward, affecting not only him, but his co-workers, his family, the way he raises his children, and potentially even his grandchildren. It has reminded me of how powerful we are even when we have no recognition of how our words and our actions will affect others.
To write your own gratitude story, you just need to think of a time when someone has expressed sincere gratitude for something you’ve done for them and then briefly answer these three questions:
Who was helped?
What needed help was given?
What gratitude was expressed and how did it make you feel?
This gratitude story process is now built into Gratitude Mojo, the journal/workbook designed to help you transform your own life. However, you can add this process to whatever gratitude practice you favor by simply retelling your story three or four times a week. It only takes about a minute but can make a positive difference in your mindset and emotional state.
Kudos File: Expressions of gratitude are precious treasures; treat them as if they were powerful and valuable artifacts ... admire them, occasionally dust them off and think about how they came to you. Protect them, revere them as part of your legacy, understand their power to change you as much as you changed the person who expressed gratitude to you.
Important: Now that you know how powerful the gratitudes you receive are, make sure you honor them when they show up. Accept them graciously and never discount them. What you did may have been simple and easy, but if those words or actions made someone’s life better, consider yourself an accidental magician and let those feelings warm your entire being.