Yes I Will Help Myself, Thanks

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96.3 per cent of the time, New Years Eve is a disappointment. A flop.

After all the built-up excitement and expectations, you usually spend the night looking after a drunk friend, having those irritatingly repetitive conversations that drunk people like to engage in, or sitting alone in a corner, because said drunk friend passed out at 10:45pm and now you are too sober/depressed to catch up with everyone else. So, what do you do while sitting on that mildly damp sofa? Think about your New Year’s resolutions. You are determined to be a smarter/richer/happier/more attractive version of your current self in the year to come – the kind of person that doesn’t even have to worry about such things.

How do we achieve this level of self-improvement? How can we indeed live Our Best Life now?

Enter the world of self-help. ‘Tis a wondrous place indeed.  Wandering the aisles of any bookshop you might find such titles as:

  • The Single Woman’s Sassy Survival Guide: Letting Go and Moving On
  • The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You
  • Make Him Beg To Be Your Boyfriend In 6 Simple Steps
  • Instant Self-Hypnosis: How to Hypnotize Yourself with Your Eyes Open
  • The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men – Love, Respect, Commitment and More! (Volume 1)
  • Get Off Your “But”: How to End Self-Sabotage and Stand Up for Yourself
  • I Choose to Be Free, I Choose to Be Me: Declare Your Life! Rhyming Affirmations For An Unlimited Life!
  • My Alien Self: My Journey Back to Me *

Then there are the online versions: the countless blogs following people’s journeys to self-betterment, the Julie and Julia-esque ‘cooking my way to the good life’ blogs, the online journals where writing is the sole purpose, and the socially responsible adventures such as ‘Uniform Project’, where in 2009 Sheena Matheiken wore the same black dress every day as a sustainable fashion statement and fundraiser. Not to mention the health and fitness blogs, the gardening blogs, the clever creative and crafty blogs. It seems there are a million and one ways to help yourself. However, there is one movement I know you would do well take note of. It’s simple, makes sense, and doesn’t involve any kind of cult-like behaviour.

In 2008, Hailey Bartholomew started ‘365 Grateful’, a yearlong mission to photograph and document something she was grateful for every day. Advised to practice gratitude to combat feelings of depression, Bartholomew used a Polaroid camera to take a snapshot daily. She blogged these beautiful images, fleeting moments that would have otherwise been forgotten: a friend’s pregnant belly, a meal her husband made her, a butterfly that landed on a hand, a daughter’s dress up day. Receiving media attention and spreading online through Flickr, blogs and Twitter, her project has launched a documentary, which is currently in the making. Her powerfully simple approach inspired countless others to follow suit, and count their blessings on a daily basis. More importantly though, at the end of the year she felt more connected to the people around her, and to the earth. She was happier.

So what is it about gratitude that works? Why does being thankful make us happier, better people? And how can we become one of these grateful super humans?

Professor Robert Emmons, from the University of California, has researched gratitude for more than a decade. He says, in a video on the 30 Day Gratitude Challenge website, that gratitude has the power “to heal, to energise, and to change lives”.  He defines gratitude as the affirmation of good things or goodness in our lives, the acknowledgement of where they have come from, while at the same time not ignoring or dismissing the bad things. Emmons also acknowledges the difference between feeling grateful, for example when given a gift or a hug, and being a grateful person, someone who looks at all of life as being a gift. Joel and Michelle Levey, Co-Founders of WisdomAtWork.com, wrote in a Huffington Post blog that gratitude shifts your focus from looking for happiness externally, to looking for happiness from the inside. So by adopting such a deeper sense of gratitude to life in general, we are able to reap the benefits.

In Emmons’ experiments, he found there were profound psychological, physical and social benefits to practicing gratitude (in this case, through keeping a gratitude journal). Psychologically, people who kept gratitude journals felt more joy and pleasure compared to the control groups (one of which instead kept journals of “hassles”, or things that bothered them daily). They were also more alert and enthusiastic. Physically, they felt better about their health overall, and took better care of themselves. They exercised more and slept more, felt more refreshed when waking up and their blood pressure levels were reduced – for real! Socially, the participants were also more helpful, outgoing and generous, and felt less lonely and isolated.

This brings us to the heart of it. Gratitude is a social exercise – grateful people both feel good and do good. Emmons writes on Big Questions Online, “gratitude is the adhesive that binds members of society together”. When you practice gratitude you acknowledge your connection to the world beyond yourself, to the people around you who you care about and in return care about you. This further creates a positive sense of self-esteem, Emmons writes, as you value others more openly, and feel more valued yourself.

So how can I get in on this self-love, other-love, general-love and happiness fest, you ask? Emmons’ first suggestion is to keep a gratitude journal, where you write down something or many things you are grateful for on a daily or weekly basis. Alternatively you can get creative, like Hailey Bartholomew, and use photography instead. Go old school (if you can still afford Polaroid film, I salute you!), or use Instagram! Get drawing! Painting! Tweeting! Stick post-it notes all over your house and infect the people around you with your contagious gratitude! Or keep it simple, and just take some time every day to think about the things you are grateful for. As Emmons says in John Tierney’s New York Times article, “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep”.

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*Yes, the majority of these amusing, pun-filled titles relate to women, and their in/ability to maintain heterosexual relationships. Come on ladies! We obviously need some kind of Spice Girls Girl Power boost, through the mediums of song and dance. Or just be grateful. Your choice.