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Healthy Aging: Thank outside the box

I am sure you give thanks. Especially during a week dedicated to doing exactly that. It may be simple acknowledgments present in a Thanksgiving table prayer or appreciative awe when unexpectedly seeing endless streams of air-dancing geese in the gray November sky.

Staying with the geese for a moment, I am personally thankful to have learned this week that geese practice “unihemispheric sleeping,” which allows them to sleep with one half their brain while keeping the other half in a semi-awake state. Geese have two hemispheres in their brains and can shut down one to “sleep” while they make their long sky-journeys to the south. Other flying birds, dolphins and whales have that capacity too. There seems to be some untapped potential here.

But I digress. Sort of. Stay with me. Today let’s “take gratitude to the next level.” I am prompted to do that after reading, by chance, an online article in Inc. magazine written by Jeremy Adam Smith, who references the work of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. The article suggests ways I had not considered previously in which to incorporate thanks-giving into my life more completely and “rewire” my brain to make “seeing the positive in life easier and more automatic.”

Dubious? These ideas are evidence-based. Harvard researchers also found a strong link between gratitude and happiness.

The article I happened upon is titled “3 Unexpected Habits of Exceptionally Grateful People.” There may be more than three ways, but let’s start there. First, this is going to surprise you. “Think about death regularly.” Contemplate your own mortality. This approach has “deep roots” in ancient spiritual traditions. When people envision their own death, they become more appreciative of the life they are living and will one day lose. Think about that.

Second: “Notice the pancakes.” Not just food, but “fresh golden pancakes drizzled with lovely, sweet, maple syrup.”

The most grateful people are “habitually specific.“ Their thankfulness pays attention to detail and feels/is more authentic. I was reminded of that when I brought a plate of cookies over to our new neighbor and he later left a handwritten thank you card tucked in our front door that detailed his almost sensual enjoyment of those cookies, bite by bite, cookie by cookie. And he shared the time it took him to eat them all. “Deliciously brief.”

Third: “Thank outside the box.” The premise here is to give thanks for the “darker moments” in life that typically do not leave you feeling grateful — thankfulness to the boss who fired you or the lover who dumped you. Finding a way to be grateful for a difficult transition can be an unexpected and positive “steppingstone.” The experts say “look back on “difficult transitions” and consider “how they turned you into the person you are today”

Regardless of how you express gratitude currently, many credible researchers believe that gratitude is “a tool that can be cultivated and strengthened over time with practice.”

But I don’t think we need research to tell us that. Isn’t it common sense? Think of it as having a “gratitude muscle,” of sorts. More gratitude. More happiness.

Sharon Johnson is retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.