Noticing the New: How Thankful Thoughts Build Your Happy

German postcardAn anonymous German postcard (1888) was the source for the first optical illusion of the “Old Woman/Young Woman.” Which do you see?

I recently heard that what we concentrate on has this strange way of growing bigger, whether that is our stress, our work load, our weight or even our bliss.  What we put our attention into is what begins to take up rental space in not only our minds, but in our reality.  Truth be told, when two people are standing next to each other concentrating on the same event, they will pick up different pieces of the event, depending on their perspective…what they concentrate on or what they pick up according to their own background and individuality. 

Negative Space, not the glass half-empty kind, but negative space in art and dance is what we often think of as “the background.”  This is the space that we generally don’t concentrate on so much because we are looking at the “positive space” (again not the half-full kind but..), the space where the dancers are moving or the parts of the canvas that the paint has touched.  My first year in college, I took a dance class and was utterly befuddled when my professor told me to step in and fill in the negative space in the studio.  What space? There was nothing there but empty air? She told me to look at the negative space and see ONLY the negative space…the shape, the lighting, the overall presence of the space where nothing appeared to be and THEN to become a part of it, shaping it to become a new type of space.  Whoa. Man.  Although at first, I felt a bit like I was being tricked, like in the storybook, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the shape of what wasn’t there slowly started to form and it gave me a new found freedom to imagine new possibilities within the space in front of me.   

Our lives are every bit a piece of art that unfolds in new ways every day.  Love, loss, grief, pain, stress, fatigue, rush, joy, beauty all take the stage at various points leaving us at times sweating, unable to see the full picture.   The deadlines at work, the fears and worries about our families, our own inadequacies take shape as a hulking beast, and we often can’t see the other, more subtle pieces around them, because our worries and stress seem so large and overwhelming.  Part of this is a survival mechanism…we can only take in so much and thus have to divide our attention so that what we take in with our senses is not so overwhelming.  So those “crises,” those things that cause us biological stress end up taking center stage.  But how do we shift our focus to the negative space?

Gratitude.  I wish I had something a bit more kitschy or new to give to you, but study after study, culture, spiritual background, one after another all say the same thing; that when we concentrate on what we are thankful for, our attention shifts to those things, and that we become happier.   It is like noticing the quiet girl in your high school that ends up being your best friend or your soul mate…you were here this whole time??? Well, yes she was, but it wasn’t that she didn’t say anything, it was that you just didn’t notice.  We get to decide where our focus goes, which is good news for us, because that gives a little bit more control in this emotional whack-a-mole game we play.  So then how do we get started?

If you are serious about shifting your focus let me challenge you to start a gratitude journal.  I know that you have probably already heard of doing this and may be having a reaction to the word “journal” like you are going to suddenly turn into a Judy Bloom character; so let’s call it the Neuron Reshaping Documentation Portfolio.  WHATEVER WORKS.  This is a place where you are going to keep track of what you notice during the day, that is new and different that causes you an increase in joy…even a slight increase in joy.   The smell of a new book, that tree that you pass by every day that you never noticed before,  the things your kids say, the high five your husband gives you as you wish each other good luck on the day (hey, sometimes it is a good-bye, sometimes it is a good-luck!).  Whatever these things are, just note them and at various times during the day say thank you and put 15 minutes into your planner to list those things, those new things that you notice.  They may have been there the whole time hanging out in the negative space, making it all that more beautiful and unique than what you have seen before. 

 Here are some questions to get you started:

What are some things that I like about myself? Not even just like…LOVE about yourself.  (This can be anything from I like my eyes, to I love that I am adventurous, to I love that am the only one in my office who sets their ringtone to The Lord of the Rings theme). Noticing new things that you like about yourself can increase your self-appreciation.

What are some things on my way to work that are beautiful?  Yes, it can feel at first a little like the License Plate game growing up…you may have to look hard at first, but once you start, these things have a way of snowballing.  Once you get going, start saying “Thank you for” before each thing or each person. 

What do you love about your home?  This is an interesting one because at first, when we look closely, we may just see how messy it is, or what needs to be fixed, but shifting your focus to what you truly like about where you live can give you more peace about the long list of to-dos.

What do you love about your loved ones?  This is an advanced practice one, because while we can practice on noticing the beauty of “things” in our lives, what we haven’t noticed before, we need to have exercised our gratitude muscles in order to feel what kind of depth of gratitude we have for our loved ones.  I would recommend picking a loved one of focus each day and writing what you absolutely love about them, what is unique and special and what your first memories are of that person.  After you write those things you may feel compelled to write them a letter to tell them those things.  Be brave enough to do it and if it is safe, send it. 

This has been a hard year for many of us and this is by no means a call to forget your grief, loss or acknowledge your pain.  Gratitude is not an evasive maneuver for running from what is right there in front but in tiny intervals can help us to notice those small things that still give us a little hope and a little joy.  You may be surprised about what takes shape and how your life starts shifting to something you never thought was there.

Picture from:

Weisstein, Eric W. “Young Girl-Old Woman Illusion.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.