It’s madness, surely? Be grateful for 2020 – the year of COVID, of viral pandemic, illness, loss, global restrictions, personal disappointments, financial hardship. In the words of John McEnroe “You cannot be serious!!”

But what if we could? What if it wasn’t all doom & gloom? What if we were able to find a few slivers of appreciation within the challenges that we have all endured? How would we then feel about last year and more importantly how would we feel, or view, the year ahead? With a little more hope, acceptance and determination to seek out the positive opportunities, perhaps?

The reality is that 2021 may not be very much different from 2020. The threat of lockdown, already imposed for the first couple of months of this year, will always be hanging over us. The media, whether written, televised or digital, will continue to instil a level of fear and anxiety with the constant reminder of an overwhelmed NHS, struggling businesses, and the daily and accumulative toll of positive cases, hospital admissions and deaths. Hopefully with a successful vaccination programme, the spring & summer will bring some respite from the social & economic restrictions, but we all know that the real test will be what happens next winter.

There are many things we cannot control or influence, at the same time it is equally true that there are always as many things that we can. And whilst they are often more subtle, more difficult to find, they are so much more important to focus on because they will remind us that we are not at the mercy of others. We can always adjust our sails to cope with the winds of change and still reach our destination.

Given all the things we can make a choice about, it is choosing our attitude to our circumstances that is the most important  It is the key to our physical and mental wellbeing, healthy relationships, productive work and true happiness.

Of course, focusing on the positives and being grateful for them, no matter how small, does not dismiss or remove the pain of a lost loved one, lost income or job, social isolation or lost opportunities and experiences. At the same time looking for things to appreciate can lessen the suffering, provide some balance and offer a glimmer of hope for a better year ahead.

Hope is the antidote to fear. And an attitude of gratitude is the foundation of all hope. If this is all bit too woolly, trite or just plain tosh to you, rest assured you not alone. I too was a sceptic – more concerned with doing rather than being, action rather than reflecting, reacting rather than pausing & responding, and seeking happiness through external events & people rather than from within. My personal development journey over the last decade has helped me mould those behaviours into ones that serve me, my family & my community – the ability to be in control of my attitude, to seek out the positive and the learning in any situation, to count my blessings, be grateful for small mercies and to be able to acknowledge the pain of loss and disappointment without being consumed by it. These were not only the starting point but also where I go back to when I lose my way – which is not infrequent!!

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter the words but to live by them” – John F Kennedy

Many people believe that saying a simple “Thank you”, is all about making the recipient of your gratitude feel good. Yet the truth is that, whilst that is certainly the case, the benefits of expressing gratitude on a regular basis are actually much greater for the person doing the expressing. As a medic & scientist what certainly helped me was an understanding of the hard science that lies behind the benefits of gratitude & appreciation.

Neuroscience studies have repeatedly and consistently confirmed that not just receiving, but also expressing gratitude increases levels of endorphins, dopamine & serotonin (our “happy” hormones) and causes observable changes on MRI scanning to the neural activity & structure of our brains responsible for positive emotions, reducing stress levels, improving sleep & metabolism.

A summary of studies that have looked at the health benefits of regularly expressing appreciation & gratitude, reveal that this simple habit can lead to

  • More optimism about the future
  • Better motivation to adopt healthy lifestyle habits
  • Less negative emotions
  • Reduction in pain
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced stress, anxiety and depression
  • Healthier immune system
  • Less inflammation & lower blood pressure

 

So how about we give it go? Of course, I’m not saying it’s necessarily easy – especially if last year has been your toughest one yet. And certainly the benefits won’t be realised straight away. At the same time, it is often the difficult choices and actions that lead to the most rewarding outcomes. What have you go to lose?

 

Here are my 5 top tips:

Review 2020 through a positive lens.

Take time out to review each month of last year and write down the positive things that happened. What worked out well? What did you enjoy? What are you proud of? What did you accomplish? Acknowledge the memories of the tough times & challenges that come to mind, just don’t dwell on them or document them – let them go and focus on the events, people, experiences you are thankful for.

Dial up your daily appreciation awareness.

Actively look for, & be open to, experiences, people & things, to be thankful for in your daily life. Take the opportunity there & then to say “thank you” and feel the warm sense of appreciation.

Start a gratitude journal

Just start once or twice a week, writing down 2 things, events or people that you are grateful for and why. They can be large or small, past or present, simple or major, and the more specific and detailed you can be the better. Build the practice over time so it becomes a daily night time habit and increase the number to 5 – another 5 a day, to go with to your fruit & vegetables!!

Convert your gratitude into action.

For the ultimate gratitude high, write a personal hand written thank you note to at least one person each week. They’ll feel great & you’ll feel even better and once you start, you soon find yourself writing several a week!!

Be patient.

Not only are studies consistent about the positive physical and mental health benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude, they are also in agreement that you won’t notice any changes straight away. It takes time – at least several weeks, so start small, stick with it and if you miss a few days or even a week or two, no worries, just start again & pick up where you left off.

Appreciation is like an insurance policy – it has to be renewed regularly. And if we can focus on and magnify our blessings, rather than our disappointments, we would all undoubtedly be much happier, healthier and embrace 2021 with more hope and compassion.