You’ve probably heard before about the idea of practicing gratitude. The natural human tendency is to focus on the negative, but we all have good things in our lives that too often go unappreciated. Boosting feelings of gratitude can have a real positive effect on your well-being. I know this, and still I struggled to build a habit of gratitude. Then, a few weeks ago, a new experience opened my eyes to what was missing: truly feeling gratitude takes more than just a fleeting thought about something good in your life. It requires focus, and most importantly, imagination.
To a large degree, we get to decide how we feel about our lives.
Humans are strangely resilient to happiness. For the poor, happiness increases with income, but only up to the point where basic needs for food, shelter, and comfort are secured. Positive changes in our lives, like getting married or receiving a raise, make us happier temporarily, but our emotional baseline quickly reverts to normal. We constantly compared ourselves to those around us, which is especially painful in a society with high inequality, not to mention a penchant for false, digitally manipulated perfection.
Researchers have shown repeatedly that happiness depends much more on mindset and expectations than on the reality of our living conditions. This explains why we find people with high levels of positive emotions all over the world, even in very poor places, as well as people surrounded by beauty, money, and opportunity who are consistently unhappy.
To a large degree, we get to decide how we feel about our lives. Of course, it’s not as simple as just telling ourselves to be happier. That’s why practicing gratitude is such a popular and powerful tool: it’s a process you can use to bring out positive emotions in your daily life.
All kinds of people swear by it, from spiritual teachers to business leaders, and there are countless suggestions out there for how to go about doing it. The most common is some form of making a list of things you are grateful for — maybe the list is any three things, maybe it’s one thing in each of several categories, maybe you do it during silent meditation, or maybe you write it down or tell it to someone. That’s great, but for me it wasn’t enough to really stick. Several times I tried to do this on a consistent basis, and each time the habit faded, and I failed to create any long-term benefit for my well-being.
Why? Practicing gratitude should be an easy habit to establish — it feels good to do it, it only takes a few minutes each day, and it requires no special resources and little energy. The reason I failed to keep it up was not that it was hard, but that I wasn’t experiencing true gratitude — I was just going through the motions of making my list.
Gratitude is not a list — it’s a picture. Pick just one thing to focus on and visualize it in detail.
A few weeks ago at a workshop on stress relief, I finally understood what was missing. At one point, the presenter asked us to close our eyes and visualize a loved one, picture their face in detail, and feel the physical sensation of our love for that person. Within moments I was struggling to hold back tears. This is what gratitude feels like, I realized. It’s not a list: it’s a picture.
Since then, I have begun incorporating deliberate moments of gratitude into my day again, and now it’s a visual affair. I choose just one thing to focus on, and I spend a few minutes visualizing it in detail. If it’s a loved one, I may relive a treasured memory. If it’s beautiful weather, I may contemplate what I’ll do that day to enjoy it. If it’s good health, I may imagine going on a hike or doing yoga with my healthy body. Just one thing, but with a deep focus on how it feels to enjoy that thing in real life.
Go ahead, try it. Start a new gratitude practice, or try incorporating more visualization into the one you already have. Leave a note below to let me know how it goes!