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by Dawn Reiss November 19, 2008

GIVING THANKS. GETTING GRATEFUL. It is hard, sometimes, to be thankful. Society has conditioned us to crave what other people have: the bigger house, nicer car or more impressive vacation. Instead of being grateful for what we have that others might desperately want we always want more. Sometimes it is only through the most powerful and painful of circumstances that we begin to appreciate what was right in front of us all along. Only too late, do we wistfully recall with remorse how we didn’t appreciate that person, moment or experience. Let’s be frank, self-loathing is part of the American experience.

But does it have to be this way?

Research done by Miami University's Dr. Michael McCollough and University of California-Davis' Dr. Robert Emmons discovered that being thankful is not only a better disposition, but necessary for your healthy life. Their study showed that being grateful increases your level of happiness by 25 percent and boosts the amount of time people spend exercising. After a 21-day "gratitude intervention" program, the researchers found grateful people reported having more energy, a better outlook on life, a better sleep cycle and less physical complaints, including lower levels of depression and stress. The researchers also found that being grateful doesn't diminish the negative aspects in our life, rather it elevates our "happy" emotions to help tip the scales towards a more positive outlook.

Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center says that studies show having a positive attitude helps your immune function better and can decrease their blood pressure.

“People who focus on being kind and grateful have a more integrative brain that works better,” Siegel says. “By being mindful and present in the moment. By having that positive attitude you change the way your brain works by being in an approach state to deal with stressful situations instead of withdrawing from them.”

Adds Dawson Church, Ph.D., author of "The Genie In Your Genes,” “According to medical studies, intangibles such as a rich social network, optimism, and gratitude can add seven to 11 years to your life-span. “When you feel grateful, researchers see wide-ranging changes to your entire biological pattern. Your neurological balance shifts; your hormonal secretions change, your heart rhythm alters, and your stress genes ‘stand down.’

“It may be hard to believe that something as simple as gratitude can have such large effects,” adds Church, “but every year more scientific evidence accumulates that these intangible factors are very important to our health and longevity."

So what should you do? Wendy Kaufman, the 46-year-old Founder and President of Balancing Life’s Issues, Inc. started making that connection when she began rethinking her life 10 years ago. A mother of three young children, Kaufman was going through a divorce and a layoff.

“Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I asked ‘what am I going to do to make my life better?’ Kaufman recalls.

That’s when she decided to go into business for herself, helping others with work and life-related issues.

To do so, Kaufman made a few important changes. She got rid of the “nay-sayers” in her life.

“I had all sorts of people telling me how horrible my life was going to be, how hard it was going to be to meet a man again,” she says. “I got rid of those people quickly and the people who were left in my life were the ones who were cheering me on, telling me how lucky I was. I am now a fervent believer that we allow a lot of toxic people into our life.”

The rest, Kaufman says was a lot of hard work, which included making difficult choices about priorities and creating a mindset that she would be successful and deserved everything that came her way. Now, happily re-married with three children, two step children, two dogs and two cats in Westchester, New York, Kaufman has built her business into a powerhouse, working as a consultant for the likes of IBM, JP Morgan Chase and The New York Times, Inc.

Lauren Zander, a 38-year-old corporate consultant and founder of the Handel Group developed and teaches a class at MIT called "Living an Extraordinary Life." Her snarky attitude is all about a wake-up call.

“The reason people are not grateful is because they tend to be in a reactionary life,” Zander says.

The problem, Zander says, is that most people fall into a routine. Instead of bringing their own playful and fun personality to something, they complain.

“Cooking might have been a sexy thing to do when you had a boyfriend, but now you’re married and ten years later it’s ‘why do I have to cook for you?’ Zander continues.

“It’s always your mind frame,” she says. “That is the only thing you have power over. That concept is critical to making the leap to gratitude because most people are victims of not noticing their attitudes and they live a reactionary life of what they have to do rather than bringing an attitude of fun to it.”

Sure, Zander says, a lot of people try to fake their happiness, by gushing about how wonderful everything is and how much they love their life, when in reality their actions say something entirely different.

Instead, says Zander, be honest and embrace that dark side of you to begin to become more thankful for who you are and what you have accomplished. It's the idea that I really love you,but you are really infuriating me right now. By admitting that, it helps people calm down and choose their attitude to deal with whatever comes next in their life.

“Everybody truly feels like a victim, even though they picked a lot of the choices in their life,” Zander says. “If you feel like a victim you aren’t going to be so happy because a lot of life feels like being grateful for going to the dentist.”

Kaufman says it’s important to look at what we do have instead of what we don’t. That will help you feel better about your work life, home life, self life.

“I get how hard it is, how hard you are struggling,” Kaufman says, “But those feelings are going to do nothing to make you feel better. Start feeling better about your life and your life will get better. Why? By raising the bar we can achieve things we never thought we could achieve. We refocus our energy into ‘I can solve this problem’ and ‘it’s not as big of a problem as I thought.’”

Kaufman is currently advising a client, a woman “who makes $100,000 a year at her executive job, has three children and is unhappy because she can’t buy a million dollar house.”

“She’s just taking everything for granted,” Kaufman says.

To start reversing that mindset, Kaufman recommends making a “gratitude list.” Create, in three columns, a list of things you feel glad about for yourself, your family and your work outside the home life.

“If you are at a loss, you need to get help,” Kaufman says. “Think about simple things like your eye sight or having two legs.”

“Just think of three things you are grateful for every day for two weeks and you’ll see a difference,” says San Francisco-based author M.J. Ryan, who has penned books like “Attitudes of Gratitude” and “Giving Thanks” Ryan says.

To make her children more grateful, Kaufman has her kids volunteer in Midnight Run that brings food, clothing, blankets and personal care items to the homeless in Manhattan.

“When they come home they are a lot more thankful for the simple things like having a bed, underwear and a bathroom,” she says.

Create a “Darn I’m Good” or a DIG List. Write notes to yourself about accomplishments that you can look at when you are feeling down. Then start thanking people. At dinner, go around and say one thing you are thankful for before you eat. Thank people you haven’t thought of for 20 or 30 years she says. Think about bad situations that end up working out well later on.

For Kaufman her moment came when she was 10 years old and was in the elementary school band. “I was horrible,” she says. “I was musically illiterate. That’s when the band director told me I could be the announcer to the band. It was the beginning of my public speaking career.”

Write thank you notes or do something that isn’t buying a gift for someone.

One of the best gifts Kaufman says she ever received happened during her divorce when a friend offered to help clean out her ex-husband’s closet full of clothes.

“It was the last thing I wanted to do and she helped me so much,” Kaufman says.

Still skeptical about how giving back can help you? Kaufman recommends reading Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about his time spent in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, as a Holocaust victim. A Viennese psychiatrist, Frankl noticed that the people who comforted others and gave away their last piece of bread, survived the longest. He realized, that a prisoner’s outlook was not solely based on the conditions of his or her life, but the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any situation.

“People don’t realize the power someone has within their own mind,” Kaufman says. “People are generally more negative than positive. Everybody has a list of excuses they thought was stopping them from doing something.”.

Kaufman recommends making a list of every excuse, every reason you are giving to not do something and then burn the list. Most people realize after writing the list, that many or all of the things on that list really aren’t good reasons at all. The other key, Kaufman says, is realizing how exhausting it is to focus on the negative, why something can’t be done, instead of making it happen.

Zander suggests first admitting to yourself or others the truth about how life really feels. Then instead of imagining the worst, imagine the best possible scenario for your life. In short, own the pending moments in your life, by making them yours. (Think the old adage: Carpe Diem – Seize the day.)

For example, says Zander, one of her clients is a man who was recently engaged. He and his fiancé's respective parents were going to meet for the first time. He was scared and was worried that they wouldn't get along, Zander says. Instead of being positive and thankful that the parents were going to finally meet, the man was so full of negativity anticipating the event. So Zander asked the man to plan how he was going to make the dinner great, what questions he would ask and the type of conversation he wanted to plan out to make sure that he created a wonderful experience for everyone. By planning out the event, the man began to change his attitude. He started to positively anticipate the event, instead of dreading it. As a result, Zander says, he and his fiancé ended up having a good time.

“We all have double agents,” Zander says. “We bet on something going lousy even though we wish it will go well. In life, we bet against ourselves a lot.”

Instead, suggests Zander, “stack the deck to win, instead of to lose.” Become the director in your life versus watching your life become a bad movie, by making your attitude an action. Tell yourself how you want to interact, what you want to think about it, in a positive manner, to make gratitude a thought pattern.”

Keep a journal for 30 days. This can be done over email. Thank someone every day and keep a record of it and what comes back to you. The thank yous shouldn’t just be for simple things like passing the milk, but thanking people who have taken the time to do something for you.

“The more you put out the more you will get back,” Zander says. “This will create shift in attitude. By thinking about the good things, you will have less time to be bothered with the bad by replacing the negativity.”

“The idea,” adds Kaufman, “is to retrain your life. Get out of your usual routines. Expand your horizons by doing different things. Go to a nicer neighborhood and instead of thinking what you don’t have, learn the ultimate lesson: be happy with what you have and don’t begrudge anyone for what they have with a ‘that’s great for you, but I’m content with my lifestyle’ attitude.”

In the words of Buddha remember: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.”

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