This World Kindness Day, look after your mind by practicing gratitude and celebrating all that we have. It's the mental health hack we could all incorporate just a little more into our routines...
When we think of celebration, our minds tend to settle on exuberant parties, room-filling applause and monumental milestones. However, while all of these celebrations are of course important ‒ and not to mention pretty novel after the recent year we’ve had ‒ there’s definitely something to be said for the power of the smaller celebrations, or the petite parties if that’s more your vibe. Appreciating the small things (the ones we can all fall guilty of taking for granted) each day is an exercise that can be peacefully meditative and grounding, help us to feel more present and alter our mindset in a more positive direction.
As a naturally glass-half-full type, I’ve always felt I’m fairly appreciative and positive in my mindset, but even the peppiest among us often struggled to see the silver linings when we were thrust into a nationwide lockdown, a few times over. The parts of my life I was most grateful for ‒ seeing my family and friends (in person), travelling to new places and going to my favourite restaurants ‒ were no longer available to maintain the spring in my step. It was after many of us were told that we couldn’t see our families at Christmas that my celebratory supplies ran empty. It didn’t feel like there was much to celebrate, and the festive season felt distinctly, well, un-festive. Feeling uncharacteristically low, I decided to try my hand at gratitude journaling, something I’d previously unfairly, and rather cynically, dismissed as belonging in the same realm as crystal healing and tarot reading (although if I’m honest, I’d have given those a fair go too).
And although sticking to writing in my journal each day had a shaky start, as is often the case with new habits, I soon found that taking three minutes at the end of the day to celebrate what had made me smile, laugh or feel comforted was something I really cherished and looked forward to. There’s never anything too elaborate in my gratitude list, and more often than not it’ll be a sunny morning, a phone call with my sister or a coffee that hits just right, but this daily ritual of celebrating the small moments of bliss has become an essential part of my mental health maintenance, even after normal life has returned.
On some level, we all know that being grateful is a good thing. Saying thank you is one of the first social etiquettes we learn as children, but why can it have such a positive impact on our brains when practiced regularly? Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang explains that ‘positive psychology (the study of what makes people more likely to thrive, even through adversity) has been a growing field since the 1980s. Over the years it’s been found that a positive mindset can be linked to greater life satisfaction, a higher cheerfulness rating, lower reports of depression, a greater sense of wellbeing and also physical health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, longer life expectancy and a lower risk of cardiac events.’
And even better news for those who err on the side of glass-half-empty, Tang explains that we can ‘retrain our brain to behave more positively, taking advantage of its neuroplasticity, or in layman’s terms, how repeated positive exposure can help it behave in a certain way.’ So, when explaining why something as simple as a repeated morning walk, evening yoga session or gratitude journal entry provided such a break from the more negative thoughts during lockdown, Tang explains that ‘through doing more of these activities, you stimulate “happy hormones” or “happy neurotransmitters” which results in more positive pathways being built and the negative ones being dampened. Savouring the little wins on a regular basis is one simple way to improve our mental health overall.’
So we’re sold on the benefits of practicing gratitude, but how do we stick to it? Although journaling was my personal introduction to celebrating the small things, Tang suggests that while this is effective, it does involve some preparation and can therefore be harder to stick to. She recommended some more informal alternatives that can be easier to work into a daily routine.
A Brush of Positivity
Saying some positive affirmations to yourself while brushing your teeth in the morning, such as ‘Who I am is more valuable than what I own’, sets you up for the day feeling positive, and it’s easy to remember because you do it alongside an existing step in your morning routine.
A Gratitude Stretch
Tang suggests ‘stretching each morning when you wake up and thinking about the people you’re grateful for, the things you’re grateful for and one thing you’re proud of yourself for.’
On a short walk, or it could even be when climbing the stairs, say a thank you after each step or as you get to each tree or marker of choice. It could be thanking your body for getting you there or anything you want to celebrate, but matching your positive thoughts with movement creates a childlike sense of fun, explains Tang.
Pick a Word, any Word
Choose a word at the start of your day such as, kind, warm, helpful, self-disciplined, focused, flexible, balanced, pleasant, tolerant, open, honest, trusting etc. and focus on being it today! Tang suggests that it’s even better to go for one that’s a bit more unusual for you, as the sense of achievement and celebration is more rewarding.
Enjoy the Moment
It sounds like an obvious one, but Tang explains that if you find yourself enjoying a moment then take another moment to enjoy it a little more. Take a few more deep breaths and savour it, even if you feel like you have a busy day ahead.
So, if you are a more negative thinker, are there any top tips for making a change towards the positive a permanent fixture? Well, Tang explains that change has three zones. ‘The comfort zone, the stretch zone and the panic zone. Understandably, we don’t particularly want to be in the panic zone, but the stretch zone can actually feel pretty nice.’ By doing something each day that places us in the stretch zone, be it walking a little further or taking the first steps to learning a new skill, we ultimately push our panic zone, and therefore our more negative feelings, further away.
However we choose to celebrate the small positive aspects of our life, it’s apparent that the benefits can be huge. And when I flick back to January in my notebook, a month where many of us feel there’s very little to be joyous about, and see that I wrote: ‘blue skies, coffee in bed and starting a new book’ in my gratitude list, I still get a little kick of positivity. And surely that in itself is something to celebrate.
Start celebrating! Write down one small thing you’re grateful for!