The number one bad habit that most people have can be surprising—it’s our auto-pilot thinking.
In the moment before we fall into any kind of negative addictive behavior, like procrastination, stress eating, isolation, or endlessly scrolling through our phones, here’s a thought. The thought, whether fully formed or not, is usually something like, I need to get away from this uncomfortable feeling, or even, I want this good feeling that’s here to last.
It’s human nature to want to distance ourselves from what’s uncomfortable and seek more of what feels good. But it’s our auto-pilot thoughts and reactions that can take us places we would rather not go—that take away our choice for how we’d like to show up in the world. With a little practice, we can build our awareness muscles so that those auto-pilot thoughts don’t slip by unnoticed. And better yet, we can re-wire our brains to prefer to linger on moments of joy and happiness rather than seek out distractions and addictive avoidance behaviors.
One of the most powerful ways I have found to shift the atmosphere of the mind towards more focused awareness is a very simple gratitude practice—but with a power boost.
How Gratitude Gets Us Unstuck
Now, before your eyes roll, consider this: if you’re thinking something along the lines of, Not this gratitude stuff again, I’ve read this in a thousand places, ask yourself, what is the net effect of this thought here? Does it incline you to move toward this practice that you’ve heard about a thousand times, or away from it?
The answer is most likely that it inclines you away from it.
If we know gratitude is a supportive practice, why does the mind want to push us away? Because the brain is wired to habituate to things. This is the classic top-down processing in effect. You read the words gratitude practice, your brain reaches back into its memory bank to find the reference for it, it sees many references and it spits out the computation, “Unimportant, move on.” Little do we often know, this computation is exactly what keeps us stuck in life. What’s called for is a moment of curiosity.
By making the decision to embrace gratitude with curiosity, you rewire your brain to accept all the benefits gratitude has to offer.
A Simple Gratitude Practice
Try to commit to a daily gratitude practice for just one week by keeping a mindful gratitude journal. Each day, mindfully and actively reflect on five to ten things you’re grateful for.
When you sit down to consider what you’re actually grateful for, take a moment to picture each one in your mind and ask yourself, why are you grateful for this? Can you feel the experience of that gratitude in your body?
Not only will practicing gratitude feel good in the moment, but studies have found that doing so can strengthen your relationships and your mental health in the long run. Remember, neurons that fire together wire together, so let all that somatic feeling of gratitude linger for a few moments, and then move onto the next one. This lights up more areas of your brain and gives a power boost to the impact of your gratitude practice.
If you have a few minutes right now before moving onto the next thing, try this out with even just one thing you’re grateful for. Bring a curious mind to it and see what you notice. You may just begin to uncover a little happiness right now.
Set a daily reminder for this week, and report back what you’ve noticed.
Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy