This past Sunday I spent the day at my parents’ house. My dad asked me to go through the stuff still sitting in my old room and get rid of anything I did not need or want anymore. I was working on my taxes at the time and the thought of doing more “chores” was about as appealing as getting a prostate exam from my doc.
I said no. He stood there clearly not budging, indicating that it was really not a request. After an awkward pause, I agreed. I’m almost 30 years old and I still listen to my dad like an obedient golden retriever.
After sending the rest of my hard earned money away, I trudged up to my old room on the third floor of the house. I opened the door and looked out the two east facing windows which look out onto several large pine trees and a fairly wooded area. Memories of my childhood and teenage years came rushing back to me. I really loved this room growing up.
I walk over to my walk in closet and find a slew of T-shirts from high school sports teams. A jersey from my 9th grade traveling soccer team catches my eye. The red Addidas dry fit jersey with the number 28 on it feels exactly as I remember. Scenes of playing soccer and all of the memories associated come rushing back to me. I can feel the thick grass beneath my feet and the hot summer sun beating down on my neck.
How the hell could I ever get rid of this shirt?
I push back the ridiculous emotions and start throwing old shirts into a bag labeled “Good Will”. Each shirt has its own unique group of memories that play in my head, as if they happened yesterday. Football, soccer, lacrosse, track, basketball, high school, college and even elementary school T-Shirts are represented.
At the beginning, this is really hard. It feels like I’m giving up a child to a hungry pack of wolves.
Eventually, I get into a rhythm and the grieving process subsides. I find more stuff I have not though about in decades and toss it into the “Good Will” bag. It gets easier.
Going through a large memory box, I find several small journals. One from elementary school and one from high school. Both have around 4 entries, which represents about 1% of the total writing space inside the journal. The rest of the pages are blank.
I open to a post about my “true” friends my freshman year of high school. I cringe and am completely ashamed at the contents. Stories about girls, embarrassing thoughts, my daily activities, and my unrealistic goals mixed with really bad sentence structure and even worse handwriting. uggggghhhhh
I really wish I could have a conversation with the teenage Ben.
A series of questions strike me as I set down the incomplete journals….
Why did I fail at journaling and reaching my goals as a teen?
Why is journaling so helpful for me now?
What changed with my brain that has allowed me to do the things I am currently doing?
I think about the question for a few minutes. The obvious answer that I was a complete idiot when I was a teen comes to mind.
I think about it some more.
Then it hits me like a ton of bricks….. The power of the subconscious mind.
It is probably because I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink right now, but I make the connection anyway. Essentially the entire book is about using the subconscious mind in and unlocking that process. Gladwell mentions how to manipulate the brain and the subconscious mind, but does not give concrete examples of how hack or engineer the process.
Good thing I have spent a ton of time brainwashing myself, hacking and understanding this process. One of my favorite methods for focusing the subconscious mind is my daily gratitude practice.
I bet you are wondering… What is gratitude?
In the most basic sense, Gratitude is the simplest thing you can do to be happier every day. It is part of a growing field of positive psychology or the science of what makes us happy. Gratitude helps us looks at everything going right in our lives and helps us understand how to amplify happiness. It is a fundamental emotion with a cognitive cause and effect.
Somehow it took the psychology community the last century to realize that it is way more beneficial for modern humans to focus on positive, rather than negative behavioral traits. With seemingly half the world on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, SSRI’s or other psychoactive drugs, let’s take a more holistic approach towards mental wellness. Let’s heal ourselves from the inside out.
(NOTE: I have nothing against therapeutic drug interventions, in fact I have seen them work wonders for some people.)
Why is gratitude so important?
Your mind will perceive negative emotions more strongly than positive, because our minds our wired to protect us. We evolved in a dog eat dog, and famine world; therefore our minds are there to keep up alive. Not actively keep us happy. Your DNA does not care if you are are living a fulfilling life.
Most of us are not likely to be eaten by a lion when we step outside, which is why we must outthink our minds.
How to practice gratitude (how to outthink your mind):
You could spend months pouring over the research of what makes people happy. However, the best way to get the most out of understanding happiness is to practice it.
Seriously, theory means nothing without action. Especially in the case with gratitude, start practicing and reaping the rewards today. There is no reason to pour over textbooks when implementing it is stupid easy and the benefits are immediate
Gratitude is a game changer on so many levels.
My Daily Gratitude Practice:
NOTE: I use the 5 Minute Journal developed by UJ Ramdas and Alex Ikonn. Check it out here. It is a really easy to use Gratitude Journal and was very well thought out. Each day there is a new quote, each week a new challenge.
In The AM:
These exercises prime your brain to take action and see opportunity. This will allow you to see the type of person that you want to be. It also forces you to simplify and see how you can make today great.
Exercise 1: List 3 things you are Grateful for:
I am Grateful for…
- Eating delicious bacon and coffee with heavy cream for breakfast
- Having awesome friends and family who support me
- My coworker who tells me a 15 minute story about their cat “Smokey” who gave them a funny look when they came home
Exercise 2: List 3 things that would make today amazing
- Writing a to-do list and executing everything important
- Staying calm, when my Co-workers tells me their story about how “Smokey” got frostbite on his paw
- Dominating my workout today at the gym
Exercise 3: Write down an affirmation sentence (even if it’s not true).
- I am going to be completely present in all of my interactions. I will look people in the eye and be more assertive.
In The PM:
Every night, open your journal and review the day. Did you do the things you said you would? This also helps identify actions that move you forward and acknowledge good things from the day.
Exercise 4: Write down 3 things that were amazing about today
- Connecting with a friend who is pushing me to do better things
- My beet, walnut and blue cheese salad at lunch
- I stayed present and unreactive when my co-worker spent the entire morning telling me about “Smokey’s” funny habit of smiling while he eats
Exercise 5: Write down 1 thing I could have done better.
1. I got frustrated with my significant other when they had a bad day and just wanted to talk.
What does gratitude actually do?
- There is a lot going on with the subconscious mind when you start a gratitude practice and it is going to affect everyone differently. For me, I found it very helpful for getting over ridiculous things at work that used to annoy me (read Smokey example above).
- There are also measureable physical reactions going on specifically in the brain. For example Gratitude focuses your RAS (reticular activating system). The RAS is a bundle of nerves that are attached to your brain stem and act as a filter for everything going in and out of your brain. When you focus your attention on the positive parts of life, guess what happens?
- PFC (Pre-Frontal cortex) activity also increases. This the part of your brain associated with willpower and problem solving. In other words, gratitude creates resilience. Resilient people activate their PFC and resistant people activate their fight or flight nervous system.
- What happens when you are mad or frustrated with someone? Use gratitude as the first step of forgiveness process. Trust me, it is much better than holding a grudge.
- Finally and possibly most importantly, it expands your self-concept. Doing so, allows you to give more and put more energy out into the universe. Seeing the true value you bring and want to bring to the world is an incredible and powerful feeling.
self-concept according to human psychologist Carl Rodgers is:
- Self-image, or how you see yourself.
- Self-esteem, or how much you value yourself.
- Ideal self, or how you wish you could be.
What Gratitude is not
There are no smoke and mirrors with gratitude and what you see is what you get. If someone promises to take you to another planet or they have innate knowledge about a looming apocalyptic event. Time to walk away.
Taking Massive action
As I stated before there is no reason to wait and do research. Open up a notebook and start right this second.
Also, think of someone who would benefit from this article. Forward the link and help them reach their goals.
If you actually read this post, reward yourself by jamming out to this song: