I’ve been reading/thinking/slightly obsessing over gratitude lately.
My husband and I are currently in a state of transition/contemplation/utter confusion. This has mainly been caused by the fact that we have a lot on our plates/minds — like me finding a career I’m passionate about, us wanting to buy a house, us also not knowing where we want to buy said house, wanting to start a family, wanting to be closer to family, wanting to travel and go an epic adventure, wanting to make a difference and be more involved in our community, the state of the political environment, the state of the environment environment, and the list goes on.
BUT we are really, really lucky.
Even beyond the typical “first world problems” argument, we are really, really lucky.
We are fortunate enough that I was able to walk away from a job I didn’t believe in to go on the journey to find one that I do. We live in an amazing city, in an even more amazing little corner of said city that provides us with serenity, awe and entertainment, all on a regular basis. We have the absolute best friends and family, and friends we consider family, and family we can call friends. We have an awesome, adorable, incredibly lazy dog that never ceases to make us smile. We have our health. We have a killer relationship that encompasses a love that is as deep as our friendship, and one that allows us to be silly and make each other laugh on the reg, but also face tough challenges together as a team and come out stronger on the other end. And if you know anything about us, we may complain that our wanderlust hasn’t been satisfied, but we have absolutely been able to go on some very epic adventures in the last year.
So don’t get me wrong, we are incredibly grateful for all of the amazing things in our lives. It’s just that with the chaos that is currently happening inside our little brains, those things are sometimes easy to overlook. It sounds ridiculous (even more so as I write this), but it takes a little bit of effort to remind ourselves how lucky we really are.
And that’s what got me thinking about the practice of gratitude.
So let’s talk about what is gratitude, really? Well, being thankful and appreciative for one. But the actual practice of gratitude goes a little bit deeper. Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
And because he’s quite literally no dummy, I think that’s a good place to start. So number one, focus on both the positive and on the little things. Sure, getting a big promotion is definitely something to be grateful for, but not every good thing in life is going to be that big a deal. There are also moments of calm (albeit they may be short), really great cups of coffee, mediocre cups of coffee (because, let’s be real, coffee makes the world go round), gestures of kindness, sunny days and beautiful sunsets to be thankful for, too. Throughout the day try to think about all of the little things you’re grateful for — in the end they all add up to one big pile of gratefulness.
But, that’s not the end of it. According to Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, gratitude really has two elements:
First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people — or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset — gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
In short, taking time to notice the good things in your life — no matter how great or small — but also taking the time to reflect on those things and appreciating who or what made them possible.
“Easy enough, but why do such a thing,” you ask?
For me gratitude helps ground me, helps put situations into perspective and it helps me realize what we have. But don’t take my word for it, According to Psychology Today, actual scientific research shows that there are some MAJOR benefits to practicing gratitude:
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Practicing gratitude can make you a more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving and outgoing person — thus help you feel less isolated/lonely. According to a study published in Emotion, thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship and acknowledging other people’s contributions can also lead to new opportunities.
- Gratitude improves physical health. According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people. They are also more likely to take care of their health — exercise more and attend regular check-ups with their doctors. It has also been shown to help lower blood pressure and improve immune system function.
- Gratitude improves psychological health. According to Emmons, practicing gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression. Practicing gratitude helps reduces toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration and regret; and increase positive emotions like joy, pleasure and optimism. It also empowers us to take control over our emotional lives, and not be in the whim of others or circumstances.
- Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kindly, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
- Grateful people sleep better. According to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep. Spend 15 minutes before bed and you may sleep better/longer and feel more refreshed upon waking up.
- Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athlete’s self-esteem. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons — rather than being resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs, grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments
- Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for — even during the worst times — fosters resilience.
Okay, so those are the benefits, but how do you actually “practice gratitude.” Here are a few methods to get you started:
- Set the tone each morning. First thing each morning review what it is that you have in your life and about which you are grateful. By identifying and focusing on this to start the day, you can set the good vibe train off for the day.
- Start a gratitude journal. Write a few things every day that you are grateful for. Whether it’s moments, people or anything else. Try to write at least three things you are thankful for each day. One, it will help you sleep better (see above), and two, a journal full of things you have been thankful for can serve as a great visual reminder of all the good things in your life.
- Write a note. It can be an actual thank you note, a simple “Thank you for coffee this morning,” text message, or a letter that you never send. When someone makes an impact on your life, write a little note to thank them. Steven Toepfer, an associate professor in the department of human development and family studies at Kent State University, has investigated the close connection between gratitude and well-being. In a 2011 study of more than 200 relatively happy undergraduate students, he and his team found that those who wrote one meaningful letter of gratitude per week over the course of three weeks experienced significant gains in happiness and life satisfaction, and a decrease in depressive symptoms. Can be to service providers, coworkers, friends or family — it’s important to acknowledge another’s effort in making your life easier.
- And on that note — just say it. Say “Thank you,” more often. For everything. To everyone.
- Turn a negative into a positive. Try to identify someone/something with a negative trait and think instead of their/its positive traits, i.e. I really dislike the President’s yellow hair and orange skin, but they do make really good joke material for late-night comedians (sorry, had to).
- Practice humility. Just do it.
- Give one compliment daily. Can be directly to a person or just sharing your appreciation of something — “I love how quiet it is in the morning.” Just another way of acknowledging the good.
- When life gives you lemons. When you find yourself in a bad situation, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”
- Watch what you say. Try to not complain, criticize or gossip for a week.
- Create a gratitude jar. Any time you experience a moment of gratitude write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. Similar to a gratitude journal, it can serve as a visual representation of all the good things in your life. I read a story about pulling the jar out on New Year’s Eve to review, which is great, but I think you could pull it out at any time when you need a reminder.
- Share at the dinner table. Yes, a little Thanksgiving-sy, but also a great way to reflect daily on your grateful moments each day.
- Read inspirational materials. Everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Charles Dickens wrote about giving thanks, and spending a few minutes reading others’ reflections on the importance of the practice will help you take it seriously in your own life, Emmons says.
- There’s an app for that. Of course there is. Apps like Happify, MOJO and others will happily (pun intended) help you on path to gratitude.
Most important to “practicing” is that there isn’t one best method and you don’t have to stick to just one — you can absolutely change it up and find one or 10 that work best for you.
Thank you for reading this (see, I’m starting already).
What are you thankful for today? How do you practice gratitude?