How to Make Gratitude Your Operating System

How to Make Gratitude Your Operating System

By: Kirk Hadden | Creativity

At ArtSpeak, we’ve made gratitude our operating system. Is it yours?

You don’t know it, but gratitude is everything you want in life. 

See, there are lots of things you want. And perhaps you remember the last time you got something you wanted…but you probably don’t. That momentary sliver of happiness it afforded you was quickly lost to the drive for the next thing.

My family and I just moved into a new house. It’s been a big move that we’ve been working towards for several years. We’ve been planning, working, saving, and searching. After all the hours on Zillow and scurrying around to different showings and piles of paperwork and signatures and finally the craziness of actually moving: it was done. We were here, in this beautiful home that was better than we thought we could have found in our price bracket. 

And yet, I found myself mere days later jogging around the neighborhood looking at the other, larger, nicer homes. Already, my desires had moved on to the next thing!

We are wired for dissatisfaction. 

That can be a good thing. It drives us to look for opportunities and create new things to make things better. It’s okay to want things. But to say that you ‘want’ something is also to focus on the fact that you don’t have it yet. It is a dissatisfied state. 

Left unchecked, we can operate in that mode all the time – constantly focused on that which is not right in our world. It’s a vicious cycle. The more we focus on the negative, the more we prime our mind to see more problems. It gives us the sense that the world is against us, and that the general pattern of our lives is more and more problems. It leads to anxiety and worry. It leads to friction in our relationships. It leads us to withdraw from others and new opportunities. 

Neurologically, we have begun to operate out of our limbic cortex, the ‘lizard brain’. We find ourselves snapping at our kids and procrastinating at work. We find it difficult to concentrate on important projects. Our creativity is stunted because our lizard brain only knows two responses to perceived threats: fight or flight. 

The antidote is gratitude.

Some time ago, a series of health challenges blindsided my family. In a period of a few weeks, we had to come to terms with some challenging new realities in daily life. One of the lesser consequences was that my daily commute changed from 15 minutes to two hours a day. I tended to spend those two hours brooding over my frustrations, worries, and complaints with this sudden plot twist. 

As the weeks went by, I began to understand that dwelling on the negative was only making things worse. In an act of defiance, I decided to smile on my whole commute. 

At first, it felt ridiculous. Then, it felt fake. And then, it felt amazing. As I drove along, a smile on my face, my brain began to try to figure out why on earth I was smiling. Surely, if I am smiling, there must be a good reason. And my mind began to work for me, identifying reasons why I might be happy. Is it because of the sunrise glinting off of the river? Is it because I live near this hospital where we could receive excellent care if we need it? Is it because somebody somewhere thought long and hard about the shape of my steering wheel to make sure it was both comfortable and effective?

Smiling became an essential habit for me. 

I looked forward to my commute, and the opportunity to dwell in gratitude. It was like a happiness generator. It didn’t matter what circumstances I faced. The problems didn’t disappear, but through gratitude I could recognize all of the good in the world around me. I arrived at work with contagious energy and optimism for the day.

Scientifically, gratitude literally rewires your brain. It builds new neural connections to the areas of your brain responsible for feelings of happiness and bliss. In fact, science shows that grateful people actually develop more gray matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus. It reduces anxiety as it helps to balance your stress hormones while enhancing dopamine and serotonin. 

But gratitude doesn’t just lift your mood. 

As you express gratitude, you begin to prime your mind to notice the good and the beautiful in life. Rather than retreating to your lizard brain, you make use of your brain’s high-power systems in your gray matter. Your response to problems is no longer limited to fight or flight.

Now that you are operating out of your prefrontal cortex, you can see so many more options. 

We’ve found gratitude to be so powerful that we’ve integrated it as a foundational practice at ArtSpeak. We take the first half of our weekly team meeting to express gratitude. Often, that gratitude is directed at other members of the team. 

When we approach others with gratitude, it enables us to team up with others to solve problems rather than treat people as problems to tackle. We recognize that we are not alone, and that there are great people who have done wonderful things for us. As we express gratitude to others, people feel appreciated and valued and relationships are strengthened. We don’t strive alone, or strive against, we get to strive with.

That’s why we call gratitude our operating system. We start there and end there, grateful for what we get to do, who we do it with, and who we do it for. Not only does it help us love our work, but we believe it enables us to do it at our very best.

Gratitude is not complicated, but it’s not always easy. 

Start somewhere. You might keep a gratitude journal, and write down 10 things you are grateful for each morning. Or, perhaps you start like I did, and make an intention to smile while driving. I challenge you to try it for a week and see if it doesn’t change your day in surprising ways.

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