Do you ever feel that your creative expression—whether it’s playing the ukulele, photography, dance or ceramics—could use a little juju?
Recent studies in the field of positive emotions show that the practice of being grateful actually nurtures creative thoughts and actions.
As a young writer, I always associated the creative life with suffering and toil. Born into a middle class household I became preoccupied with social justice issues early on, instantly gravitating to all that was wrong with society. I was determined to be a tortured soul, even if my immediate family history didn’t warrant it. After all, misery was for those who wielded the pen, I thought. Or was it? It never occurred to me that being grateful could actually light a fire under me.
Barbara Fredrickson, social psychologist and author of Love 2.0, studies how positive emotions, such as love, joy, and gratitude, foster creative actions and ideas, inventiveness, and "big picture" thinking. Not only that, these emotions build up our stores and can be drawn on later on, to maintain balance and well-being.
Although, when we focus on negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, anger and frustration, the mind narrows its focus on the threat, which can limit our ability to remain open to new ideas and relationships. Fredrickson gives the example of a water lily to demonstrate this idea: “Just as water lilies retract when sunlight fades, so do our minds when positivity fades.”
A daily gratitude practice is one simple action we can take to foster creative thoughts, and build psychological resilience—a trait that all creators, no matter what kind of art we practice, can benefit from. In time, according to Fredrickson’s research, this practice may help to increase our resources, expand our thoughts and actions, leading us to a life where we thrive instead of simply survive.
The following is a list of six things you can do today to start a gratitude practice:
1. Read something inspirational at the start of your day. There are umpteen books and websites out there dishing out daily doses of happy. I’m a stickler for good writing and if it’s too cheesy, then I can't stomach it. Poetry is my inspiration of choice, and so I often turn to American poet Mary Oliver, among others. To make accessing poetry even easier, the Poetry Foundation has a free app that allows you to search poetry by emotion (i.e., lovesick, jubilance, fear), which is pretty cool. While uber-talented spoken word poet Sarah Kay is definitely worth checking out, especially her If I should have a daughter that's received over eight million views.
2. Keep a gratitude journal. Friends and colleagues of mine do this, and now I’ve started to as well. I used to just say what I was grateful for quietly to myself, yet I've been told it’s much more powerful to write it down. Teacher Whitney Cole at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento is changing children’s lives through this simply practice. Check out the beautiful work she's doing HERE.
3. Be helpful and say thank you. Saying thanks seems like a small thing, yet it can actually make someone's day better. “Creativity, meaning, resilience, health and even longevity can be enhanced as a surprising by-product of contributing to the lives of others,” writes Stephen Post, professor of preventative medicine and bioethics, at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and author of the Hidden Gifts of Helping and Why Good Things Happen to Good People. Showing gratitude to others through words or actions allows us to build up our own mental, physical and emotional capacities, so the exchange becomes, in a sense, mutually beneficial.
4. Keep track of good moments. Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author, keeps a Happiness Jar, and describes how she goes about it: “[...] Every single day, at the end of the day, I grab a scrap of paper (the corner of a telephone bill, or a bit of an old to-do list) and I write down upon it the happiest moment of that day. And I put the date on it. And then I fold up the note and stick it in the jar. And that's the whole practice.” Love this idea!
5. Practice meditation: I’ve practiced different meditation techniques throughout the years and have settled (for the time being) on Vipassan? or Insight Meditation, which is based on the Therav?da Buddhist tradition. Not only is meditation good for self-reflectiveness and mental well-being, it also helps to develop compassion for others. We begin to experience life more directly and to witness our own story unfolding. We become more forgiving and grateful of others, and of our own circumstances.
6. End your day with gratitude and forgiveness. I typically finish my day by giving thanks and forgiving those who have, shall we say, stretched my patience. Sometimes I say I'm grateful for getting home safely, for the fresh greens I ate at dinner, or for a friend who I heard from unexpectedly. Shit, sometimes I even give thanks to the guy who cut me off in traffic, as he taught me to breathe deeply and pay attention. Or, my thanks might be for something really small, such as a misplaced sweater I’d been looking for that magically turned up.
Gratitude—in small or large doses—helps to refocus on what we have rather than what’s missing. Through these simple tools we can find something to appreciate every day, making space in our harried lives for creative thoughts and actions. And, when navigating troubled times, maybe we’ll be better able to flex our creative muscle, transforming a crisis into an unexpected masterpiece.