Looking for a way to make your daily walk more interesting – and also improve your mood, and even potentially your overall mental health? We have it, it’s called a Gratitude Walk and all you need to do it is a pair of walking shoes – and for our version, your camera phone.
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What is a Gratitude Walk?
Gratitude walking aims to help you focus on what’s good in your life.
Some versions just see you just walking while listing all the things you’re grateful for in life – also known as gratitude meditation – but, to be fair, you can do that on the sofa (I actually do it as an exercise before I go to sleep to still my mind) and, so I like to do something a bit different with my version of the gratitude walk to make the most of being outside and moving.
The idea is that while out on your walk you take pics of anything that fits the following four categories…
- You think is beautiful
- That makes you smile
- That inspires you
- That makes you appreciate your life.
Not only does doing this make the time you’re walking for pass quicker – and, livens things up if you’re regularly walking the same route day in, day out – looking for positive sights like the ones listed above actually retrains your brain.
The Benefits of Gratitude
It’s been proven that looking for the positive in life, no matter how small, helps you start to appreciate the good in life and, you actually start to generally think more positively.
In fact, in one US trial people focusing on things they felt grateful for every day felt more positive about their lives in as little as ten weeks.
Another study where people seeking treatment for mental health concerns like depression wrote letters of gratitude to others saw results in as little as four weeks – and their positive feelings peaked after 12 weeks of practise. Trust me, this stuff works.
Other benefits of gratitude include increased immunity, lowered blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, better sleep, increased activity levels and fewer trips to the doctor. Yep, changing a little bit about how you think can give your entire body a makeover.
How Practising Gratitude Works
There are many different ways that doing a gratitude exercise can help change how you feel and what you focus on.
For starters, gratitude has been shown to release dopamine in the brain – dopamine is a reward chemical, the more of it you release and the mnore you realise how nice it feels, the more you want to do things that set it off (that’s also how social media hooks you in btw!).
Expressing thoughts of gratitude also stimulate activity in a few different parts of the brain including ones linked to learning, and again, parts linked to reward.
What this means is the more you practise gratitude the more reward you get from doing it – and so the more you want to do. Next thing you know you’re focusing more on the positive than the negative and life, basically, just feels that little bit happier.
Why Walking Boosts the Effects
As I said, you can do a gratitude exercise anywhere – but, doing one while moving powers things up slightly.
You see as we walk (or run, there’s no reason you can’t do the mental part of the workout while running – although stopping to take pictures might get a bit annoying). a number of bodily reactions occur that switch us into a place where we’re more emotional, more open and actually better at solving problems.
In fact, according to Harvard psychiatrist Dr John Ratey, author of the book Spark!: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. when you’re standing up (which you kind of need to be to walk or run!) the brain increases the rate at which it fires by 7-10 per cent which in itself increases our ability to think faster and be more focused. Blood flow to the brain also increases when you move boosting its ability to function.
Walking is also a rhythmic activity, your feet hit the ground in a nice steady way and, this might also help you come up with ideas.
In the book The Joy of Running psychologist Thaddeus Kostrubala suggests that the repetitive activities switch off the logical, left part of the brain, letting the more emotional, creative right-hand side do its thing. He says it’s similar to what happens during meditation where people repeat a phrase or mantra in an attempt to open the mind and stimulate different levels of consciousness.
On top of this, the creative part of your brain wakes up when you move.
In a study at Stanford University volunteers asked to come up with solutions to their problems when walking came up with more creative ideas than those doing the same exercise sitting down- and walking outside, caused the biggest creative spurt of all.
Steve Jobs used to come up with a lot of his ideas while walking – and that didn’t go so badly did it!
On top of that, walking, especially brisk walking, will help release endorphins – and in the words of Elle Woods – ‘endorphins make you happy.’
If you’re going through a bit of a bad patch, when, perhaps trying to come up with a few things you’re grateful for is tough, but try walking while you do it and your brain can wander into some wonderful places.
Why Photography Adds to the Effects
The photography element of this gratitude walk also helps boost the positive effects.
Most gratitude walks have you focusing inside yourself – and while some people find that easy, it doesn’t always work for everyone – having the stimulus of trying to find four specific ideas to photograph, creates a more external focus.
But while you’re looking around for external things that fit each group, your mind will start wandering and you’ll also start thinking of things in your internal life that also fit the criteria.
That might not happen on your first walk, but give it time and as the neural pathways in your brain start to build towards more positive types of thinking you’ll get better and better at finding the good.
In fact, when researchers at the University of Lancaster in the UK asked people to get into the habit of taking one photo a day and posting it on social media, they found clear improvements in mood and wellbeing.
People taking part in the study said that the pictures gave then a chance to appreciate small moments of beauty in their life, to take a a few minutes just for themselves in a busy day and, that they liked creating something for themselves no matter what else was going on around them.
All of which made them feel happier and more positive.
Fields of Sunflowers Not Required
Now, you might be thinking, but I don’t live anywhere particularly pretty, how am I going to find anything inspiring to photograph – but you will.
At the time I originally wrote this piece in 2015 (it’s having a bit of an update in 2020), I didn’t live in a particularly beautiful place in the UK, and I figured that if I could come up with five pics that did any of those things on my daily walk through the local housing estate then anyone could manage it.
Cue pictures of bees, flowers, quirky cars.. and one day I even photographed the bus timetable.
A strange thing to photograph you might think. But I don’t drive and so without the bus, I was staring at my own four walls day in day out. They cancelled for a few months once and it wasn’t good. I was happy to see it back and grateful that it’s there. Cue starring moment for the No40 bus stop!
If you’re really getting stuck – start with a picture of your feet. If they’re anything like mine, they might not be pretty – but, the fact that you’re standing on them and moving about is something to be grateful for.
One Particularly Important Point
As the comment about my feet reveals, a gratitude photo walk isn’t a photography competition.
Its aim is not to reveal your artistic side, it doesn’t matter if the pictures you take are not perfectly framed or even if they are in focus. The idea is to make you see what’s good in life and you don’t need to be Instagram-perfect to do that.
You also don’t have to show the pictures to anyone if you don’t want to. You can delete them as soon as you get home if that’s your choice – although I’d suggest keeping a few of them on your phone just to flick back over and remind yourself what’s good if you’re having a bit of a downer day.
If you do like them though, you can put them on Instagram or another social media site and explain why you took them – it might give the idea to someone else. Just let them know where you saw it first!!!
Wait there’s more…
If you love this idea but want to go for a longer walk, then check out the idea for the 10,000 steps treasure hunt where you choose 5-10 things you have to find while you’re out. I had a blast when I tried that one.