I originally published this article on LinkedIn in January 2019.
I like to have a keyword at any given time to describe my approach to life. For 2019, my wellness word is INFLAMMATION (I will be focusing on how to avoid this) and my professional word is FOCUS (I have the attention span of a gnat), but my overall approach to life needs to be based on GRATITUDE.
If you aren’t familiar with the your brain’s ‘reticular activating system’ (RAS), you’ll be familiar with the concept. You get pregnant and suddenly all you see around you are women with bumps, babies and buggies. You consider getting a spaniel and notice that spaniels are everywhere. You learn a new word and hear it again within hours. Spooky. Reticular activation is how the nerve-endings in our brain process out a huge amount of irrelevant information and stimuli and focus on the things it believes we are most focused on or interested in. It’s one way to explain the Law of Attraction (though I am a mystic at heart and love this law).
What does reticular activation have to do with gratitude? Vishen Lakhiani discusses it in his amazing book, The Code of the Extraordinary Mind. I now do Vishen’s six-phase meditation daily (it’s <20mins long and on YouTube here). One phase is gratitude, where we are prompted to recall 3 things about our personal lives, then work lives, then ourselves, for which we are grateful. I have noticed that almost without fail, the blessings in my personal lives that come to mind instantly are moments with my family, or moments in nature. I have not yet given meditative thanks for new shoes (I know, shocking!). The reason I choose these memories to be grateful for is that I can viscerally feel them when I’m bringing them to mind. When I think about cuddling with my kids, or holding hands with my husband, or the sun on my skin, they are such primal human pleasures that recalling them is a very physical and multi-sensory experience. Shoes are just shoes.
My point is that I have noticed my reticular activation really kicking in here. The more time I spend meditating on, giving thanks for and recalling the true simple pleasures in life, the more these things are front-of-mind, the more I actively seek out these experiences, and the more of my focus and head-space I give them. We are all busy and I have been guilty a million times of zoning out my kids, of not really seeing them or my surroundings, and of taking my amazing husband for granted. But the gratitude practice makes me hungrier for the important things in life and more appreciative of them when they happen. As Ariana Huffington discusses in her gorgeous book, Thrive, going through life with wonder is so important, and putting more focus on the magic of nature and human connection enables a beautiful virtuous circle. And there’s nothing more wondrous than drinking in your kids or seeing the world through their eyes. As the amazing Brené Brown puts it (I am paraphrasing here as I can’t recall the exact quote), don’t be so busy trying to be extraordinary that you forget to enjoy the ordinary things in life.
I have been known to be high-maintenance and hugely ambitious and goal-driven. These are things that spur me on but the power of gratitude is in knowing that I already have absolutely everything I need for perfect happiness. I have to admit I have always struggled to square being ambitious and having BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) with being perfectly happy in the present moment, and nowhere have I seen this conflict more beautifully explained than in Vishen’s book above. He argues that happiness in the now, and vision for the future, are 2 necessary ingredients that need to be balanced. If you have only the former you’ll get stuck in your current reality, having all your happiness dependent on the latter leads to stress and anxiety (“I’ll only be happy if I get that promotion / house / bag). If you have neither, you’re in a negative spiral! But if you can have wonderful, huge dreams while enjoying every present moment of the journey, you can reach the magical state that he calls Bending Reality, where it feels as though the universe has your back. There’s a ton more in his book on this and I highly recommend a read. I read it 3x over the summer and am going to go back over it again to prime myself for 2019.
Finally I would just mention that I’ve just finished Dave Asprey’s long-awaited new book Game-Changers, and there’s a wonderful chapter on gratitude in there too. The vast majority of the game-changers in his book have formal gratitude practices. The reason his take on gratitude is so valuable is he credits it with altering our flight-or-flight-prone chemistry. We are all primed to act on fear for survival, but by focusing on gratitude we ‘bathe our nervous system in safety cues’ that allow us to get out of our own way and go fulfil our dreams.