“TODAY IS A WONDERFUL DAY, I'VE NEVER SEEN THIS ONE BEFORE”
— MAYA ANGELOU —

I think it is such a lovely way to choose to look at each new day. I really love the sentiment of this quote, it has a sweet childlike wonder to it because when we are small, each new day seems to be full of fun, possibilities and new discoveries.

But as we grow older it becomes more difficult to see the wonder in each new day as our discoveries and fun gradually get replaced by routines, expectations and responsibilities. This often leads to our focus getting diverted onto the next big goal, comparing ourselves to others and on being successful. Instead of waking up each day with a feeling of wonder, we wake feeling anxious or even fearful about the length of our job-lists, how we are going to pay bills on time, that mistake we made in a report or presentation which could reflect badly on us etc etc. This can result in us feeling that there is little to be happy or joyful about.

Current world events may have exacerbated this feeling to levels not seen for generations. Which is why it is more important than ever to look for and cherish the bright lights and simple pleasures in each day.

We are led to believe that the key to happiness is more so we work harder and harder to achieve more of everything - a fancier car, a bigger house, exotic holidays, expensive clothes and accessories etc. We convince ourselves that when we earn a certain amount of money or when get promoted to a certain level of status within a company we'll feel happy and fulfilled but in the pursuit of this mythical more entity we almost always end up with a feeling of less and like we have less.

The good news is that it is possible to reverse this trend and in so doing improve our mood and sense of wellbeing. Better still, it doesn't require the investment of a single penny or even much of that most valuable of assets; time. It is the simple art of gratitude practice.

I know it sounds too good to be true, but please bear with me and I will do my best to explain how having an 'attitude for gratitude' is the key to feeling more joyful and how you can make the most of it.


First a bit of brain science to hopefully help it all make sense; (I promise I will try not to hit you over the head with a brain science textbook!)

Each of us possesses a 'Default Mode Network' (DMN), it is a system which connects certain areas of our brains that shows increased activity when we are focused on the past and future rather than the present. It is essentially the brain's data processing filter.

Research shows that our DMNs are especially active when we engage in introspective activities such as daydreaming, contemplating events in the past, planning for the future or thinking about events from someone else's perspective.

Regions of the human brain
Human brain regions, credit Arizona State University

The DMN connects a number of brain regions which include the following;

prefrontal : the region at the very front of the frontal lobe is the part of the human brain that is involved in a variety of complex behaviours, including planning, managing emotions, impulse control and greatly contributes to personality development and growth.

parietal : the parietal lobe plays an important role in integrating sensory information from various parts of the body, knowledge of numbers and their relations, and in the manipulation of objects. Its function also includes processing information relating to the sense of touch. Portions of the parietal lobe are involved with visuospatial processing which then, through motor signals, controls movement of the arm, hand, and eyes.

temporal : the temporal lobe communicates with the hippocampus and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memories. It is also involved in primary auditory perception (hearing), secondary areas process this information into meaningful units such as speech and words. The areas associated with vision in the temporal lobe interpret the meaning of visual stimuli, processing and establishing recognition of faces, scenes and objects.


WHY DOES THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK MATTER?

In short the DMN allows us to processes incoming sensory data and helps us react to it based on past experiences and the knowledge accrued from them.

It is thought that this is the main network responsible for triggering the 'fight or flight response' and therefore it tends to have a more negative bias in order to keep us safe. The example often sighted is that of a caveman emerging from their cave, they would need to know whether the object in the distance was a source of danger or not.

This was all well and good in ancient times. But the pace of modern life with it's constant sources of stress provoke our DMNs to act like a hair trigger for the 'fight or flight response' and when left unchecked result in the negative bias having a detrimental affect on our mood, decisions and sense of wellbeing.

In addition this, it is associated with essential states of self-focus, social cognition and mental time-travel and research has shown that decreased connectivity between specific DMN areas appears to be linked to various forms of mental illness. This is especially true in depressed individuals who are engaged in high levels of rumination (persistent pattern of negative thinking characterised by continued reflective and uncontrollable emotion).

It is therefore important to avoid rumination and other negative thought and behaviour patterns in order to keep connectivity high and healthy. One way of doing this is through cultivating a positive mindset, which can be aided by simple gratitude practices. These practices can tranform the way your brain processes incoming data (current events and happenings) by switching the focus from negative to positive.

The DMN is also thought to play a crucial role in key human traits such as creativity and empathy. As a person idles and their mind wanders and drifts, the activity of the DMN is thought to give rise to ideas which other networks then evaluate, process further and then choose to act on (or not). Therefore the more activity we can promote in our DMNs, the more connections we will create within them. This can in turn lead to higher levels of creativity which brings joy and purpose to our lives and thus a beneficial virtuous circle ensues.

HOW GRATITUDE PRACTICE HAS HELPED ME

Until I learned about gratitude practices I was the epitome of that situation I described at the beginning of this article. I woke up every morning worrying about a multitude of different things, I constantly compared myself to others and I was miserable. I would ruminate for hours, sometimes days over events and minor mistakes - turning them into epic failures and it led to me developing a lot of negative thought and behavioural patterns. I was grateful for so many things in my life, but there was always a nagging need for more that I couldn't hush up which made what I had seem like it wasn't enough.

My job had a lot to do with this, working as I do in an aerodynamic department of a racing team whose sole focus is to find flaws and improve them, whilst constantly comparing the work you do with others both within our own department and also at the other teams. In addition to this the rhetoric is always about the next huge goal - usually one no one else had ever achieved in the history of the sport - and how it would take an monumental amount of work, effort and commitment to achieve it. Such is the pace of development that even when we do achieve these goals little time is spent savouring it before talk turns to the next goal and the one after that. It is just the nature of the beast and while this is a very effective strategy for creating a quick racing car, it's not so good for long term mental health unless you know how to balance it out and tools to aid you do so.

The mentality required to do my job well ended up being infused into every aspect of my life; I found fault with everything and compared what I had with others and always wanted a better version. I burned the candle so far down at both ends in order to do things as perfectly as I could in every area of my life and it took it's toll. For years I riled against it trying to fix 'the system' to eradicate the problems - to no avail. But I now realise that as with the way light hits objects and creates a bright side and a side in shadow, things can be viewed from different perspectives if you can learn to move the focus of the light.

This is the gratitude practice I used to help shift my focus and that I continue to use to this day:

List 3 - 5 things you are grateful for at the end of each day. Some people choose to do this around the dinner table with their family each evening, or when they tuck a small one in to bed at night but I find it particularly helpful to write it down. The act of writing makes it more concrete and noteworthy for me. In focusing on the good things of each day your brain will remember that day as a good day and it will actually start to notice more good things and start to attract more of them.

I have found this practice to be particularly helpful throughout the Corona Virus lockdown.

To help you get started with your own gratitude practice I have created a 'gratitude journal page' which you can download for free. All you have to do is hit the 'download journal' button below and then fill it in each day.

Download Journal

Below is a gallery of some things that feature in my scribblings, I find the smaller and more personal they are, the more I make time for them and really appreciate them.

This simple practice has enabled me to completely transform the way I view and remember my days, it has also allowed me to appriciate the simple things once more. I don't play the comparision game anymore because I find so much joy in what I already have. To quote Aesop:

“GRATITUDE TURNS WHAT WE HAVE INTO ENOUGH”

I hope this article gives you some insight into how your brain works and helps you find more joy in each and every day.

I'd love to know how you get on with this practice and if you have a favourite gratitude practice, let me know in the comments below.

With light and love
Samantha x

with love,
Samantha