But could a practice of gratitude actually help you feel better during the toughest of times?
Yes. Thank goodness! (ha ha)
Like exercise, it can take a monumental effort of will to get started when “being grateful” is very nearly the last thing you feel like doing. But there is some science to support the idea that putting a positive spin on events in your life can stop the spiral of negativity.
It’s a weird kind of “fake it till you make it,” but studies bear it out: Being grateful, even if you have to force it, will make you feel like there’s more to be grateful for.
Gratitude is not just remembering to say “thank you” for favors rendered. Gratitude is literally a sort of state of grace, an openness to goodness and a willingness to see the goodness in events, even when it’s not immediately obvious. It’s a posture of being thankful for what you receive, and using that sense of gratitude to connect with the world outside the self.
Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis is considered the leading scientific expert on gratitude, and he defines it this way: “A felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”
I remember a gal I knew in college who told a story about banging her head that morning while getting out of her car. “Thank goodness I didn’t have my tongue between my teeth!” was her biggest takeaway. Now that’s a spirit of gratitude and grace.
Gratitude is easier for some, like the gal from school; some of us may simply have a genetic predisposition toward gratitude. The rest of us, well, there’s that word “practice” again….
Feeling gratitude makes us happier. Acting happy, even when we’re not, improves our mood, tricks our brains into seeing the world more positively. The behavior of gratitude actually affects brain function, lowering perception of stress and increasing pleasure.
People who are grateful – whether naturally or intentionally – experience higher rates of satisfaction with life, better connections with partners and others, and may be physically healthier. Gratitude could, some studies suggest, be good for heart, digestion, sleep, even your skin! The jury is still out on much of this, but we figure, it costs nothing, so maybe each of us can be a study of one?
While there’s little or no research on “gratitude and menopause” exactly, the findings of other studies certainly could apply to menopause.
Stress. We know many menopause symptoms worsen when a woman is feeling under a lot of stress. And stress has enormous impacts on our bodies, brains, hearts…every part of us functions better when stress is kept to a healthy level. Gratitude helps relieve sensations of stress, putting whatever’s freaking us out back into perspective.
Sleep. Good sleep can be so hard to come by during perimenopause and menopause. An attitude of gratefulness may help you sleep easier. And the trickle-down effects of a good night’s sleep are almost incalculable.
Hot flashes. OK, "solving hot flashes" may be asking a bit much of gratitude, but a positive mental attitude can make it easier to weather the heat, letting it flow through rather than resisting. And that can make having them more tolerable.
Mood. Anxiety, depression, and mood swings may all be improved with a practice of gratitude. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at UC Riverside, says in her talk on gratitude and happiness that “gratitude neutralizes negative emotions.” Unfortunately, negative thoughts can increase in peri/menopause, so anything that moderates that negativity is a real boon to our mental and emotional health.
Rage. Rage is such a common and troubling issue for women in menopause, it gets a paragraph all to itself. Gratitude reduces aggression. Gratitude makes us more compassionate and empathetic. It helps us remember there’s a real person on the receiving end of our anger and rein in the fury.
Keep a gratitude journal. Professor Lyubomirksy talks about a study in which participants were asked to write up to five things they were grateful for, either once or three times a week. Those who wrote once a week showed significant increases in both gratitude and happiness. But it’s important, she says, to find the right “fit” – maybe once a week is perfect for you; maybe daily feels good. But remembering to experience gratitude in a mindful way is important.
Appreciate the little things. Even if life is a bit short on tropical vacations or financial windfalls, there are still plenty of things to be thankful for: a soft shirt. An open cashier’s line at the grocery store. Really good coffee. A warm bath and a great book. Gratitude doesn’t have to be big. Taking a moment to enjoy sunlight on your face or a really good tomato can reset your mood in a more positive direction.
See the everyday through new eyes. Humans are very adaptable, which is good, but it can also mean we stop appreciating things quickly. What’s something you now take for granted that makes your life easier or better, that once you felt real gratitude for? For example, I ride my bike to work when I can, and it’s great on a nice day. Instead of seeing it as an optional means of transportation, I can choose to see it as a chance to enjoy the scenery without fear of rear-ending the car ahead of me. (I can also appreciate motorized options when it’s dark, rainy, and I have a bunch of stuff to carry!)
Send thank-you notes. Writing a few lines of appreciation to someone who matters to you is a great way to remind you to be thankful, but it’s also a real gift to the person on the other end. This doesn’t have to be a thank you for dinner or anything specific – just a sincere appreciation for the role they play in your life. Many of us don’t do this for fear of embarrassing ourselves or the recipient, but in fact, you may just make someone’s day.
Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. Keeping a grin on your face for a few seconds can actually trick your brain into thinking you’re happy and decrease your stress levels. You can, by the way, do this alone, since it might seem a little odd to others. Or go out and smile at strangers! You might both end up happier for it.
Humans are good at gratitude. We knock it out of the park during the holidays, for example. The trick is to try to practice gratitude all the time, to keep at it until it becomes your default. You could, quite possibly, live longer as a result of feeling gratitude – and enjoy that extra time to the fullest.
We've decided to be even more purposeful about gratitude here at Gennev HQ, and we'd love for you to join us. What are you grateful for today? Share your list of five in the comments below, join our community forums, or join the conversations on our Facebook page or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.
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