Adrienne: At the start of this year, many people resolved to try to practice more gratitude in 2020. But back in January, little did we know how much we would need those positive feelings. Today, for some tips on how to extract more gratitude from each day, we’re joined by our wellness columnist, Scott McPherson.
Adrienne: Hi Scott.
Scott: Hi Adrienne.
A lot of us try to practice it, but maybe we should start with describing why appreciation and gratitude can be helpful in our lives?
Scott: Well, the main thing is, both things tend to feel really good to experience. And even if things are bad, if our life is regularly loaded up with positive, appreciative feelings, then those can act like airbags for when have those emotional collisions in life. So being skilled at appreciation can add a lot of resiliency to pretty much any life.
Adrienne: Why do so many of us find it so difficult to practice it consistently?
Scott: The truth is, the biggest problem there isn’t enough people around us modelling it. What’s modelled to us is more often things like gossip, or complaining. Then everyone jumps on board to either attack or defend the person or thing being complained about. So, we all tend to follow the thoughts, rather than ask if that tone of thinking generates anything useful in our lives. But if we start paying more attention to how our choices make us feel, it doesn’t take long to realize how often we volunteer to pass around negativity. And the problem is, if –even if we’re thinking about other people’s very real mistakes, those thoughts are in our heads. We’re still the ones consuming the negativity.
Adrienne: How do we shift out of that negative state into one that’s more grateful?
Scott: We’ve talked before about seeing our consciousness as –like a container. If it’s filled with unpleasant thoughts, we have to dump those out by stopping those courses of thought. We have to literally stop creating the words in our heads. And the best way to stop the creation of those ideas is through the act of appreciation. But we can only happen in the present moment.
Adrienne: Can you give us an example?
Scott: Yeah, for sure. The other day I was at the store. Really long line of responsibly distanced shoppers waiting for the cashier. So, I had an appointment. And, unbeknownst to me I had a lot of subconscious thinking about how I couldn’t be late. And then, that’s when I noticed my foot tapping really impatiently. And that tense physical response made me sort of bring my thoughts into my conscious. And when I did, I realized it was telling myself a narrative about the costs of being late. And we all know those thoughts will not speed up a line-up. So at that point, in total selfish self-preservation, I started looking around the room, I started giving it my attention –instead of my string of thoughts about being late.
Ardienne: And that helped?
Scott: Uh, yeah. Because by doing that, I noticed one of the guys in line was wearing a team jacket. And my brother and I race cars, so I asked the guy if he was a fan. It turned out his brother raced too. And we ended up having a really enjoyable conversation that left us both really quite happy. So that right that there is the perfect example. Because I had a choice between continuing to think those agonized and useless thoughts about being late that weren’t going to move the line forward; or I could shift my awareness to the present moment, and discover him. If I hadn’t shifted, I would have been miserable about being late, and the guy and his coat would never have existed in my reality. Without really slowing down to see him, he just would have been some a part of my general problem. But, in reality he was a unique opportunity for potential happiness. That’s how our thinking can influence the reality we experience. That’s why I like that saying about how we can die a ‘death of a thousand cuts?’ There’s no big wound, just a ton of little ones? That’s what it’s like to have a day of subconsciously thinking painful thoughts. All of us will do it sometimes. But the way out is always through appreciation. If we get good at noticing our bad feelings and at shifting our focus, we start to see that the world has a lot more reasons for positive feelings than most of us ever bother to notice.
Adrienne: But you were still going to be late?
Scott: Yeah, but we have to remember, that was going to happen either way. My real choice was to either endure the pain of being late with an added layer of suffering; or have the pain of being late but with a positive story about an interesting guy I met. One makes me feel worse, one makes me feel better. Make enough of those little choices in a day and that can add up to a massively better life.
Adrienne: And what about positive, or even more neutral times? Does appreciation still have value in those cases?
Scott: For sure. That’s when we can build our resiliency. We all know that if another driver cuts us off, our reaction will have a lot to do with the state of mind we were in when it happened. On a bad day we’re more likely to blow up. On a good one we just make space; keep breathing. That’s why it’s a healthy thing to nurture a positive attitude all the time. We can’t always do it, but if we –you know, if we’re nurturing it, we –we never know when we’re going to get cut off in life and that way it’s available. And if gratitude has become our habit through daily practice, then it’s way easier to find really helpful grateful moments, even when things are pretty bad.
Adrienne: I understand you have a little exercise that can help us learn to turn gratitude into more of a habit. How does that work?
Scott: Yeah. First, we need to develop better radar for our complaints about reality. This is stuff like when we complain about traffic, the weather, or because the boss we’ve had for 10 years is acting like the boss we’ve had for 10 years. We all know those things as –we have to know those things as more like feelings, so that when they show up we recognize them as requiring action. Once we’ve done that, we just have to find something to appreciate so we can replace the negative thoughts with positive appreciation. People are pretty good at that, the main problem is, they forget to stay conscious.
Adrienne: Is there anything we can do about that?
Scott: It definitely does help if we think of our day in segments. The smaller the better, but we can start as broadly as using morning, afternoon and evening. If the segments are shorter, we can use things like say, ‘getting ready for work,’ ‘the drive to work,’ ‘initiating the workday,’ then ‘the period until lunch.’ etc. Those might be 10 minute to 2 hour segments. So the person with the 3 broad, morning, afternoon and evening segments gets 3 opportunities to check in on their focus and maybe rescue their day. But the person who segments their day into much smaller portions will have dozens of opportunities to kind of rescue themselves each day. So even if they only do it a few of the times, they end up better off. So it’s easy to see why we’re better off being more conscious with smaller segments. And the more we do it –we can slowly start to develop a sort of ‘gratitude habit.’ The brain rewires pretty quickly. So everybody shouldn’t underestimate their ability to change. If we’re earnest, before long we can turn those little segments of practice into a pretty resilient and positive attitude about life in general. And in terms of mindfulness, that’s one of the most meaningful things we can do.
Adrienne: Hmm. Good to keep in mind during these COVID times. Thank you so much Scott.
Scott: It was a pleasure. Take care.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our wellness columnist. He is a writer, speaker and instructor at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of joining Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post after its airing.
Almost everyone is open to the idea that more gratitude will improve our lives. But even if we have that intention, for many the struggle is with the practicalities of that. How can a person can find more gratitude than our habits deliver? Today I’ll talk with Adrienne about a simple mental exercise that we can do, and the more we do it the more we’ll find opportunities for us to be intentionally grateful.
If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.