I was meandering down the tracks, angsting over the state of the world, when suddenly my ears pricked up as they heard a melodic tune drifting out from the back of someone’s house. This triggered a string of teenage memories from times long past. It was Scott McKenzie singing, ‘If you’re going to San Francisco…’ Wow – in that moment I was back in 1967 when the beautiful people were wearing flowers in their hair. What followed was a huge hit of happy (and hippy) nostalgia which, in that present moment, I allowed to sink in with a smile. I was certainly doing what Rick Hanson calls ‘taking in the good.’ I had come off autopilot – where we live too much of our life – and, instead, I was resting in the awareness that this lovely song and the associated happy memories were permeating my head and my heart. While, to the outside world I looked no different from the other people just enjoying a bit of a wander down the lanes, inside I felt warm and content. My brain, instead of focusing on what brains habitually focus on – the negative stuff, in that moment was definitely aware of the positive and was sending out feelings of contentment and security rather than feelings of anxiety or fear. Thank you, Scott McKenzie for getting me out of the red zone and into the green.
So, as I continued wandering up to the park, I began to think about this summer of 2021. The slogan ‘Summer of Love’ has already been claimed but we could name this summer the ‘Summer of Gratitude’. There is much to be grateful for in the here and now. In taking a mindful pause we are able to nudge ourselves into the present moment, which enables us to stop worrying about the past or the future, as we notice the bits of good stuff around us. What a lovely – and simple – way of rebalancing ourselves after all the things that have impacted on our wellbeing since we stepped into the pandemic.
Practising gratitude can be a game-changer as it has far reaching effects. Research provides evidence indicating that a regular ‘attitude of gratitude’ can make us happier, relieve stress, increase physical and psychological well-being, improve sleep patterns and enhance self-esteem. In addition, it has been shown to impact positively on relationships, make us more optimistic, more likely to help others and feel less lonely and isolated. So, what’s there not to like in focusing on gratitude? Well, like anything that we want to learn or improve, we have to train our brains.
Here are a couple of ways to begin to embed a gratitude practice in our brains (remembering that, because of the negativity bias, it can be harder to focus on the good stuff and let it sink in than the not so good stuff). One way is to take time to notice what’s around us. That’s where a mindful pause helps set us off in the right direction. Slowing down to pick up on the beauty of nature, the kindness from a van driver who stops to let us cross the road, appreciating that we’ve been able to have our COVID jab, that there’s something tasty in the fridge for teatime treats. The list is endless… we can generate gratitude by just simply noticing what’s here right now. We may remember to be grateful for the mega events in life but we don’t need to wait for a big win on the Lottery before we practice gratitude. Let’s focus on appreciating the little bits of good stuff that are weaved throughout our daily activities. We could even share our gratitude with the people in our life who are important. It’s easy to take them for granted. Training ourselves to show appreciation to these folk can strengthen our relationships. Another way is to share our gratitude through social media which can feel so negative at times. Maybe by posting an uplifting photo of a place that you are grateful for or something you have done. Not in a showy off way but as a reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for, widening our circle of appreciation.
How about giving this little gratitude practice a go?
1. Savour the good. Tune into your senses to cultivate gratitude by slowing down and noticing what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. There doesn’t have to be anything special going on in order to practice gratitude – it’s as simple as feeling grateful for your morning coffee, a bit of sunshine or a good book in the bookcase. Explore this simple practice to appreciate the little things.
2. Use the breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. Our minds are always so easily pulled into busyness. Bring particular attention to feeling the breath, or a sensation in the body, as you relax your shoulders and turn your attention toward gratitude.
3. Next, bring to mind a sight you are grateful for. Look around and find one thing to start with that you appreciate that you can see. It could be a colour…a shadow…a shape…a movement. What do you see right now, and can you feel grateful that you are seeing this, whatever it is?
4.Now, shift to a scent you appreciate. As you continue to work with your senses, take time to tune in with appreciation to any aroma that is here right now. What do you notice? It could be gratitude for something familiar: a scent that brings comfort, upliftment. Or maybe it’s something you’ve never smelled before and it just arouses curiosity, enlivens you.
5.Moving on, tune into any sounds around you. Allowing the world of smell to gently recede into the background, on an in-breath shift your attention to your ears and the world of sound. How many sounds can you notice, and can you feel grateful that you’re able to experience them? What can you notice about these sounds—are they far away? close? Perhaps you could play a piece of music that brings you joy, and have gratitude that it’s available. Or maybe it’s the sound of children laughing, the sound of breathing, the sound of the beating of your own heart.
6.Coming to the world of touch and texture next. We can find so much to be grateful for in touch. Now we can hug again, you can feel filled with gratitude for the joy of human contact. Or perhaps you have a pet that you can stroke and cuddle, or something like a blanket with a texture that feels warm and soft to touch. There’s so much to be appreciative of.
7. Shift to noticing and appreciating objects around you. Now take a moment to look around. Appreciate how much effort must have gone into anything at all you own, be it a picture, a kettle, a fancy expresso machine, a computer…. many people will have been involved in the creation, production and distribution of that item.
8. As you end this practice, carry this attitude of gratitude with you. Why not offer your thanks to each person who does anything at all for you today? Even if it is their job to help you. When you’re grateful, when you let your heart open up and be filled with appreciation, notice how being grateful makes you feel. Carry that gratitude into the rest of the day.
So, while the original Californian Summer of Love is long gone and we’re probably not going to be wearing flowers in our hair in these northern parts, we can still be grateful for the music that it inspired from Procol Harem, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Dylan and all the others. And we can be truly grateful that, here in the UK, we are on the right side of the COVID stuff (hopefully) and we may be able to enjoy a Summer of Hugs alongside this Summer of Gratitude.
A reminder about what mindfulness is about…
• Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and noticing what is happening while it’s happening.
• It’s about being on our own side with kindness when it’s a difficult moment.
• It’s about pausing to take in the good in enjoyable moments.
• It’s about not living our whole life on automatic pilot.