When you hear the words gratitude and garden in the same sentence, you may do a double-take. Is it really possible that your backyard produce patch and acts of gratitude go hand in hand?
You may be happy to know that, although gratitude practices can undoubtedly happen anywhere, having a green thumb or a flourishing garden actually isn’t required.
What exactly is gratitude?
Gratitude is a word that has recently gained a lot of traction in the wellness world. “Just be grateful for what you have,” is a phrase you may hear if you’re feeling frustrated with your current job predicament, or when you’re annoyed that your hot water heater broke for the third time this month. Unfortunately, telling someone to “just be grateful” may not incite the revelation you want them to have. To fully understand what it means to be grateful, we need to have a grasp on what gratitude actually is.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia. Gratia can mean grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context. In short, gratitude can be both a feeling and a state of being. You can feel grateful for your warm bed, and you can also embody gratitude by choosing to focus on the positive aspects of your life. These things, people, and experiences are all parts of your personal gratitude garden.
Consciously cultivating a gratitude garden involves thinking, saying, and sometimes writing a list of all of the things, people, and experiences in your life that you are truly grateful for. It is important to note that expressing gratitude can take as little or as long as you would like.
To truly build an internal gratitude garden, it is important to begin with an open mind. When your mind is in a receptive state versus a closed state, you are more likely to embody gratitude as opposed to just welcoming the fleeting feeling.
The Evolving Research on Gratitude
Studies conducted over the past two decades have consistently shown that gratitude is integral to our emotional, spiritual and physical well being. One study that came out of Harvard Health looked at the concept of gratitude between married couples. The couples were instructed to express gratitude for their partner on a daily basis. At the conclusion of the study, men and women reported that by exercising gratitude for their partner, they not only felt happier, but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns to their spouse.
Another study looked at the act of journaling and its role in growing a gratitude garden. People of different ages were instructed to journal for ten weeks about things that made them feel grateful each day. Not only did optimism levels go up at the end of the ten weeks, but there was also a physical effect. The participants noted that they exercised more throughout the process and had fewer visits to doctors. It can be implied that their outlook on life improved, in turn increasing their desire to take care of themselves.
Science also points to a link between gratitude and higher immune function. Researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kentucky conducted a study among law students. They asked students to rate their level of optimism during the first year. Students who rated themselves as being more optimistic as opposed to more pessimistic maintained a higher number of disease-fighting cells.
Blocks to Gratitude: What Stops Us From Being Grateful?
In today’s world, people are moving at a faster pace with the intent of getting more done in a shorter period of time. Have you ever heard the phrase, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead?”
Unfortunately, some individuals take this at face value. Being “busy” is associated with being productive, which means that people are sacrificing downtime as well as time to check in with themselves mentally. In turn, the World Health Organization has noted that burnout is on the rise. Burnout is certainly not a good recipe for a thriving gratitude garden.
Another roadblock to the cultivation of a gratitude garden is pessimism. Think about the number of times you wake up in the morning and begrudgingly say “I have to do this today.” Consider the effect that may have on your mind and your ability (or inability) to feel grateful.
Researchers that wanted to explore this concept of pessimism versus optimism split people into two groups. One group was asked to complete the sentence: “I’m glad I’m not a___,” while the other group was instructed to complete the sentence “I wish I were a___.” At the conclusion of the study, participants in the first group rated their optimism levels significantly lower than participants in the second group.
So, How Do We Grow a Garden of Gratitude?
It’s evident that gratitude is correlated with happiness. So, if we want to be happy, here are some steps we can take to grow our gratitude garden:
Find Quiet Moments to Reflect (or Build Them into Your Day)
In today’s world, we are constantly running from place to place. We schedule back-to-back meetings, use our lunch hour to catch up on emails and pack our mornings full of errands when we finally get a day off. It is only natural to feel like there is no time left in the day to devote to growing a gratitude garden.
Interestingly enough, the quantity of time spent speaking or writing a gratitude list has no correlation with happiness levels. The key is to focus on the quality of your practice: Are you truly grateful for the things you are writing down? Can you stay with that feeling for 15-30 seconds, to the point where you really feel the gratitude wash over you? Growing your gratitude garden can take less than five minutes each day as long as you feel open and accepting of the practice. Try turning off the lights for five minutes before your next lunch meeting and use this time to say a few things you are grateful for. It can make all the difference in your busy day.
Start a Journaling Practice in the Morning
If you can’t seem to find those five minutes in the afternoon to breathe and reflect on what you are grateful for, it may work better for you to start earlier in the morning. Set your alarm clock ten minutes earlier than you usually do and designate a comfortable spot to journal. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply and settle in, and spend the remaining time jotting down a few things you are grateful for that day. The act of journaling in the morning can help set the tone for a positive, calmer day, and in turn, help you grow your gratitude garden.
Choose a Time and Make It a Habit
A common complaint people have is that after a long day, they often forget to express their gratitude. Picking a designated time or place each day to grow your gratitude garden can help to reinforce the habit. Maybe you choose to say what you are grateful for out loud in the car each morning, or perhaps you use that five minutes in the kitchen to jot down a few ideas as you wait for dinner to heat up. If time allows, you can even plan one night a week that you focus entirely on self-care for 20-30 minutes. Ideally, you would choose a place that makes you feel calm and happy, enabling you to open your mind and reflect on the day. Making a habit of something trains your brain to remember it without additional effort.
Find a Gratitude Buddy
Sometimes we need another person to hold us accountable, and that’s okay! There are plenty of people who have walking buddies, gym buddies, and reading buddies to keep them accountable for their actions. Finding a gratitude buddy is no different. To start, find a friend or family member who is excited to build their own gratitude garden. If you’re having trouble finding a buddy, try searching for other like-minded individuals on a social media platform. This site is also a great place to connect with others who are looking to deepen their gratitude practices and grow a gratitude garden.
A “Positive Reset”
Ultimately, striving for a positive reset at any point in the year is a great way to connect with what is important to you. When you’re feeling grateful, you’re increasing your awareness of things you care about and appreciate.
Cultivating a gratitude garden creates an internal reward circuitry that is uplifting and infectious. Thankfully, you do not need to grow your own cucumbers and tomatoes to build a garden of gratitude. Give it a try this week and notice the positive changes in your overall well-being.
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