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OPINION: Gratitude is a good habit

A simple gratitude practice helps the nervous system relax and feel positively refreshed. With gratitude, our bodies and minds can pause the "freeze, fight or flight" response and more easily find the "rest and digest" button.

I grew up in a family where admitting that I was feeling bored or sad was a sure way to be handed a rake or a broom or a cleaning cloth.

Rather than admit to my mother that I was feeling lost or at loose ends, I invented games to play by myself. My games were imagined and played in my head, talking to myself and also to an imaginary friend.

That trick of childhood coping has served me well during this past year. When things are feeling dreary or sad or overwhelming, and I feel my energy cratering, I simply set myself a playful challenge.

In March, I played with the idea of "bench strength." Rather than set myself a literal challenge to build my competency or physical power, I challenged myself to sit on a bench (or lie down flat on a picnic table) once a day. For up to 10 minutes, I did nothing but look at the view, smile at passersby or take note of the weather.

I hoped that following my March challenge, we would be facing a different set of COVID numbers. Instead, I am looking for an April game to play, avoiding anger, boredom, fatigue and lethargy.

My current 21-day challenge: to walk daily and look for things that turn up the corners of my mouth.

It's astounding to me that starting and maintaining some kind of gratitude practice is such an effective way to reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and enhance my emotional, mental and physical well-being. But, the body of gratitude science – statistically valid and peer reviewed – is conclusive. Gratitude is a complex socio-cognitive emotion, that can become a personality trait and is strongly correlated to mental health.

Gratitude counteracts feelings of envy, anger, and greed and can help us feel more satisfied. With gratitude, what we have becomes good enough. Further, no harmful side-effects have been identified – as long as the gratitude is appropriate and authentic.

How could it get any simpler? Positive psychologists and mental health experts agree – by keeping track of the things that bring you joy, you will feel better and your mood will swing upward.

This is an easy DIY project to try at home. Set yourself a 14 or 21 day playful challenge. After keeping a journal for 14 days you should start feeling some positive side effects. If you keep a gratitude journal for twenty-one days, you are closer to making this a habit. If you continue for 90 days? You will be on your way to making it a personality trait.

Equipment: a pen and a fresh journal. Mark the cover with the word "private" and find a quiet corner. Put the date at the top of the first page, marking it Day 1. Write the numbers one to five down the margin.

Be kind to yourself. If the heartaches and hassles are first to bubble up, start with that list. Then, keep writing. Before closing the book and putting it away, make a list labelled: five things I am grateful for, or five things that are turning up the corners of my mouth today.

A simple gratitude practice helps the nervous system relax and feel positively refreshed. With gratitude, our bodies and minds can pause the "freeze, fight or flight" response and more easily find the "rest and digest" button.

Biologically, the mind cannot be negative and grateful at the same time. The gratitude journal is a positive way of coping with COVID, with heartaches and hassles. Gratitude is a steal of deal at twice the price and a wonderful challenge to accept.

With the full power of positive thinking, grit, open-mindedness and genuine gratitude, Lorraine Widmer-Carson's book will be launched in May 2021. With questions or to learn more about her services and Grassroots Gratitude, contact lorraine@grassrootsgratitude.ca or follow her on Instagram: lorraine_widmer_carson.