An Unexpected Way to Practice Gratitude for Better Mental Health

Holly Slater

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Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Our experience of the world has been a rough one lately. Some of us have dealt with more stress in the past several months than we’ve ever had in our entire lives. And I know I’m not alone when I say my coping mechanisms have been less than healthy.

I’ve turned to booze, binge eating, and wallowing in my own sorrow to try to pass the time during a raging pandemic, and, I have to say, none of these have been particularly beneficial to my physical and mental health.

One method, however, has managed to help keep me grounded. It’s enabled me to put things in perspective and find my focus at a time when I need it the most.

The idea is simple. Once a day, while you’re brushing your teeth, mentally craft a list of three things you’re grateful for.

It’s an extremely convenient way to practice gratitude. And let me tell you, in a world that’s turned upside down, it’s been incredibly refreshing.

Make your list specific, whether the items are tangible or intangible. Dig deep and come up with a specific instance, object, or feeling. If it’s about a person in your life, what about them are you grateful for? If it’s the fact that they make you smile, think of the last time they made you smile.

If it seems like a lot, don’t stress over it. It’s not always easy to take mental inventory of the things you’re grateful for when you’re used to worrying about the negative things affecting you.

Honestly, the first time I tried it, I struggled to come up with three. So I thought about the fact that I’m fortunate to be able to brush my teeth at all. Some people don’t have homes. Some struggle to find a shelter in which they can take care of basic hygiene and don’t get to brush their teeth every day.

By taking stock of what I had, I remembered that too many people are struggling with basic necessities. It reminded me that I’m privileged enough to be in a position to help those who need it, and that I should do so more often.

Keeping a gratitude practice has the power to help us think positively, and, in many instances, it inspires us to reach out and help others however we can.

Rational Positivity

This toothbrush gratitude method is something I learned from a corporate seminar. This was after our work-from-home order was issued, so my team and I all attended virtually.

The Zoom webinar was called “Rational Positivity,” hosted by New York Times bestselling author, Shawn Achor. After five years of teaching at Harvard, he expanded on his research and published several books on the science of happiness.

I’m typically bored out of my mind by professional development webinars, but this one was different. Achor was entertaining and engaging as he shared his personal journey.

Although he touched on many things, practicing gratitude while brushing your teeth stood out. It seemed like something I could do easily, without disrupting my already overwhelming schedule.

This wasn’t getting up at 5 a.m. for an hour of meditation. This wasn’t finding time before work to write morning pages or keeping up with a time-consuming mindful yoga routine.

I was going to brush my teeth anyway — so why not take the time to focus on the good?

Gratitude As Self-Care

Whether you prefer to do this in the morning or at night (or after lunch) doesn’t matter. Any time is good. We brush our teeth every day, multiple times a day, so why not use one of those times to practice some simultaneous self-care?

Giving thanks is indeed a form of self-care, as acknowledging the positive things in our lives can help us live happier and healthier, according to research.

One article from Harvard’s Healthbeat publication references a study where a group of participants wrote a list of what they were grateful for each day. The gratitude group fared better than those who wrote about their irritations:

After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

It’s just one of several studies that suggest a connection between gratitude and wellbeing. And especially when we’re in the midst of stressful, tumultuous times, it’s vital to take stock of the things that make us happy, no matter how big or small.

Happiness Bullet Point List

While the seminar I attended was focused on positive thinking as it relates to career and working life, the method is helpful for anyone. Stay-at-home moms or dads, retirees — it’s even something we can teach our kids to do as a way to help them maintain perspective and a positive attitude when they’re stressed.

As an example, here are the three points of gratitude I came up with this morning. I like to think of them as “happiness bullet points.”

1. Nicely sore muscles from the previous evening’s run

I know it sounds weird — but it’s the good sore, I promise. It’s been so hot where I live that I’ve avoided going running for a full month. Since I’m not going to the gym right now because of the steady rise in COVID cases where I live, running outdoors has basically been my only physical activity. It’s also my way to mindfulness, meditation, and exploring creative ideas.

Now that I’ve had a cooler day to get back in the habit, I’m hoping I can maintain a routine, even if it means going for shorter distances when it’s hot or…gulp…getting up earlier to run in the morning. It’s an ambitious goal for me…

2. Quality laugh time watching Golden Girls with my 13-year-old son

My son is an only child, and since he started talking, he’s been able to crack me up. We both share the same sense of humor, and one day, on a whim, we watched the pilot episode of Golden Girls. Now he’s hooked. I watched it with my mom as a kid, and now I’m watching it with him. He’s an old soul, and these powerful comediennes bring us both joy. He can’t decide whether Rose or Dorothy is his favorite character. I’m partial to Blanche myself.

3. Having a partner who loves creating as much as I do

Being an artist while being with an artist has its ups and downs. But the way my fiance and I mesh, I’m happy to say they are mostly ups. We’ve had arguments about focusing too much on his work and not enough on mine or vice versa (fighting for the spotlight seems to be indicative of the fact that we both love attention), but for the most part, being in a relationship with a fellow creative has kept things interesting. I write articles and fiction, while he’s a scriptwriter. He prefers acting on film, and I highly prefer performing on stage. I’m grateful that while we have artistic similarities, we also have nuanced differences that we can pick apart. I’m also extremely attracted to his creative brain. (And the fact that he’s not hard on the eyes doesn’t hurt, either.)

You Won’t Know Until You Try

So, next time you’re brushing your teeth, give your own happiness point list a try. You may struggle to keep your list down to three, or you might struggle to come up with three.

Whether it’s daily or even just a few times a week, you’ll become more connected to the positive things both inside and outside yourself, which is something we all need.

Try it and be consistent with it, even if it seems silly at first. Even if it doesn’t seem like “your kind of thing.” It didn’t seem like my kind of thing either, but it’s made my tired old dental hygiene routine a new and invigorating experience.

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