These past few months have been more tumultuous than usual—I think we’re all ready for 2016 to wrap up. The election has left reverberations of fear, distrust, and uncertainty in its wake. No matter what political views you hold, you can likely feel the sense of disorder hanging over the nation, and even the world.
Unease and negativity are not always entirely bad. Good can emerge from acknowledging your feelings and the airing of your opinions. There’s inherent value in in working through discomfort. Fear and uncertainty are often the first steps along the path toward personal growth. Disagreement and challenges may be uncomfortable, but unpleasant emotions that accompany growth often prompt introspection and have the ability to widen one’s worldview.
The thoughts you feed are the ones that grow.
The work begins with you. This holds true in situations both big and small. You do your best and still fail to get the promotion; you try to persuade your family to have a holiday meal at your home but lose out to someone else; you feel sabotaged or burdened by a health issue. Disappointment and frustration are big feelings. It’s natural to feel negative in the face of a situation that is less than ideal, but eventually within every obstacle, there is an invitation to heal and cope. The problem emerges when you get stuck in the negative feelings and find yourself unable to accept things as they are. Spending the majority of time in the negative feeds your darker thoughts. It gives them strength and allows them to take root and develop into grudges and deep-seated pockets of anger. The thoughts you feed are the ones that grow. If you focus on the problem, the problem gets bigger, and before you know it, you’re a giant ball of anger, frustration, and sadness.
Train Your Brain to Notice the Good, Too
So, how do you find resolve? How can you train your brain to choose a path of neutrality or balance— especially after a prolonged negative outlook? The answer is simple but not easy: you turn toward your authentic feelings as there is always a measure of pain. You are called upon to meet your roadblocks and challenges with acceptance, not to turn away.
Start by acknowledging every emotion without judgment. Spending all your time on what doesn’t go your way overshadows the experiences in your day-to-day life that bring you an appreciation for life. Name these moments, and call them up in your mind. According to UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, contrasting the present with negative times in the past can make you feel less unhappy and enhance your overall sense of well-being. Emmons postulates that an attitude of gratitude is essential especially under crisis conditions as it builds up a psychological immune system that cushions you when you fall. It can help you gain perspective on life and can help you cope with crisis.
Four Practices to Foster Gratitude
Changing your thought pattern isn’t easy. If you find yourself triggered by a negative event, stuck in a negative thought loop, or unsure how to begin, try some of the following tips:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before you go to bed, take a moment to write down three things that made you feel grateful throughout the day. Robert Emmons’ research demonstrates that keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks results in better sleep and more energy.
- Set an intention to pay attention. Take time to acknowledge all the encounters that make you feel grateful.
- Engage a family discussion. If you are a parent with teens, start a family conversation by asking: What obstacles are you facing? Or, share a time when you were open to a new experience and you benefited from it. Having your family members express their present moment experiences can help set the stage for more connection, appreciation, and compassion.
- Start a class discussion. If you’re an educator, gather your students in a circle and ask them to think about 10 things they’re grateful for. After a few moments of reflection, engage them in a structured discussion by asking: “Share one person that you are grateful for in your life and why.” Student-driven conversations can help build an appreciation for their diverse experiences as well as their common humanity.
It may not come easy at first, but the more you express your thanks and gratitude on a daily basis the more natural it becomes. So even if it feels forced, stick with it and commit! Trust me, nothing can stop the flow of life and apparently it has joy, suffering, delight and happiness.