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Can 5 minutes of gratitude make you a happier person?

How — and why — to make time for mindfulness every day.

by Lauren O’Connell
This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

Try as you might, you can’t control the stressful situations life throws your way. Your babysitter cancels, you’ve got a big presentation at work, your dog gets sick, your car breaks down, you get a surprise bill in the mail — whether you plan for them or not, these kinds of things are bound to pop up (often at the very worst time).

What you can help, though, is how you respond. Change your mindset, the thinking goes, and you’ll be happier, healthier, and better prepared for any unforeseen obstacles that get in the way of your day. But is your mindset really something you can control, when so often it feels like the reverse is true?

Science suggests that it is — and even more promisingly (especially for those forever in a losing race against their to-do lists), two of the most effective strategies for shifting your mindset take only a few minutes a day. Daily gratitude and mindfulness practices serve separate but related purposes, and when integrated into a routine, they’ve been associated with reduced stress and greater emotional satisfaction.

Of course, sticking to a routine is often a challenge unto itself, which is why Fitbit’s Sense smartwatch provides mindfulness tools for stress management, silent reminders to help with accountability (such as the bedtime reminders and an hourly step-count suggestion), and guided breathing sessions for focus and relaxation. Just like you might wear it to help track your miles as you train your body, you can use the Sense to stay on top of signs of stress and help you manage it through mindfulness and meditation as you train your brain.

‘The gateway to optimism’

Gratitude is about learning to find the positive in any situation, including difficult ones. Even if the good is as simple as a cool breeze and the bad is as overwhelming as grief or heartbreak, if we don’t notice and acknowledge the former, we’re likely to be consumed by the latter.

On a neurophysiological level, humans are “attuned to be afraid and to be alarmed and to be negative. That’s how we’re wired,” says Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Business School and the author of several best-selling books on happiness. “Our evolution has led us to become fear machines.”

This might seem like a rather cruel Darwinian trick, but it’s actually what’s kept humanity alive as a species over the course of our history.

The problem? Nowadays, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the biggest threat we encounter is a lurking predator or an email notification. We’re still primed to react.

When triggered, the pituitary gland in the brain signals the adrenal gland to pump out stress hormones, which can be damaging to the body over time — raising your blood pressure, making it harder to sleep, and, in chronic cases, putting you at risk of problems like depression and heart disease.

To help you better understand your response to stress, Fitbit Sense features an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor that gives you feedback on your body during a mindfulness or meditation session. You can also see how well your body’s handling stress with a daily Stress Management Score that’s based on your recent exertion, EDA readings, sleep patterns, and heart rate variability.

Where there’s room for improvement, gratitude may function as a switch to refocus our brains on the positive. It is, says Sharon Grossman, a psychologist and the author of a book on burnout, “the gateway to optimism” — but it’s a skill we need to develop so we can tap into it when we need it most. That’s where a regular gratitude practice comes in.

by Lauren O’Connell

Brooks recommends taking the time once a week to write down five things you’re grateful for — whether that’s the health of a loved one or the fantastic burrito you had for lunch. Then, every day, take out the list and think about each item you wrote down, returning to update it weekly.

There’s a growing body of scientific research to support the effectiveness of gratitude practices. In one such study, 300 university students seeking mental health treatment were divided into three groups for a three-week exercise — one was instructed to write a weekly letter expressing gratitude, one was asked to write about their feelings around stressful experiences, and the third was given no writing assignment. When the researchers followed up four weeks and 12 weeks after the exercise, the gratitude group reported significantly better mental health. Elsewhere, studies have also found that gratitude is associated with higher self-esteem, improved physical health, better sleep quality and duration, and deeper interpersonal connections.

Focusing on the now

The pursuit of mindfulness, meanwhile, has an even richer scientific and cultural history. Its goal is neutrality — to notice our thoughts and emotions just as we notice our surroundings.

“So much of the time, we end up being really reactive. We’re in this autopilot mode and we’re missing so much of the information around us,” says Grossman.

Mindfulness teaches us to slow down, be present, and observe what’s really happening — something most of us rarely do. Instead, we tend to spend more than half our time thinking of the past or the future (“mental time-traveling,” in psychology-speak). In itself, this may not be harmful, but when we don’t pay attention to the here and now, it’s easy for negative emotions to take over.

Even if it’s subconscious, we can self-sabotage; fall into self-criticism; or become so attached to a vision of the future, we spend our lives worrying about whether it’ll ever materialize. “Even when you’re aware of habits you want to change, you might find that it’s nearly impossible to do so because they’re so ingrained,” says Grossman.

A mindfulness practice can be as simple as shutting off your phone, putting your book away, and paying attention to what’s going on around you on your subway ride home, says Grossman. It can also take the form of daily meditation — whatever that might look like to you.

The meditation techniques that can help with accessing and maintaining a state of mindfulness have their roots in early Buddhist teachings, but today they’re popular with people of all religions, ages, and backgrounds. Mindful meditation has been shown to help reduce stress, foster well-being, and even lead to better relationships. All for just a few daily moments of pause.

Fitbit offers a range of guided meditation sessions to introduce beginners to the experience or give seasoned practitioners a convenient library of resources accessible in just a few taps (and if you’re a Fitbit Premium member, for a limited time, you also have access to a complimentary six-month Calm membership). Along with the meditation library, Sense wearers also have access to the relax app (which not only provides a guided deep-breathing session, but also helps determine your breathing pace via your heart-rate variability data), their stress management score (calculated by sleep patterns, your physical activity, and heart rate), and are able to set a daily mindfulness goal. The combination of these stress-management features allows Sense wearers to easily work towards staying present and regularly checking in with themselves, regardless of where they are.

Building better habits

Key to both mindfulness and gratitude practices is making sure they’re part of a daily routine. That way, when a tough situation does arise, you’ve already done the work to prepare — so you’re not running a marathon before you ever go out for an easy jog.

The good news is this all becomes less work overtime. Once a behavior becomes habitual, says Brooks, it’s governed by a different part of the brain — the nucleus accumbens, rather than the prefrontal cortex — and doing it doesn’t have to take focus or energy away from other things.

He compares it to starting a new job and learning the commute: at first, you have to turn on your GPS, watch the street signs or subway stops, maybe miss a turn a few times before you know the way. After a few months, though, you could probably get there with your eyes closed (though, of course, that wouldn’t be very mindful).

The goal of a gratitude practice is the same: when you encounter a stressful situation, you want your good habits to kick in before you have the chance to think about it. So, you must practice those responses. Much like how the commuter might rely on GPS to guide them on their new route home, Fitbit’s mindfulness and stress-tracking tools can help guide you on a new path of staying present and increasing your calm until it becomes second nature.

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