“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more.” -Melody Beattie
With Thanksgiving only a few days away, we are often encouraged to reflect on what we are grateful for. Although gratitude is a skill that may not come naturally and often requires consistent effort, it is a powerful, evidence-based practice to boost your mood and wellbeing.
Gratitude is a sense of appreciation for all that we have, tangible or intangible. The benefits of gratitude are obvious: thinking about everything we have reminds us of all the good in our life. Here are some lesser-known, scientifically-proven benefits of a regular gratitude practice:
- Improved physical health: lower blood pressure, improved immune function, reduced cardiac inflammation
- The subjective experience of feeling healthier overall and more likely to take care of their health
- Increased happiness and decreased depression
- Individuals who kept weekly gratitude journals exercised more consistently, reported fewer body aches and pains and expressed more optimism about the future.
- Better ability to make progress toward important personal goals
- Higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy
- Increased empathy and decreased aggression
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased resilience following difficult or traumatic events
- Improvements in the quality of romantic relationships
Gratitude is not often our “default mode” of thinking, which is why it requires effort and practice. From an evolutionary perspective, we are hard-wired to think negatively, a concept often referred to as the negativity bias. In prehistoric times, negative thinking was essential for our safety. At that time, we had to think about potential negative situations that may threaten our safety and survival so that we could take action to prevent those situations from happening. Nowadays, that frame of mind is not usually necessary, at least not daily. We have to train our brains to shift away from the “glass half empty” mindset and into an attitude of gratitude.
Another reason why gratitude takes conscious effort and may not come naturally is because of something called hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation is the idea that emotional intensity decreases over time when we are consistently exposed to the same emotion-producing stimulus. In other words, good things start to feel less good over time. When this happens, we must put forth effort and intention about cultivating gratitude. It’s not that the good thing becomes less good; it’s that we become so familiar with it that we forget about its benefits.
Our mind is like a magnet; we attract what we think. If we consume our mind with all that we want, don’t have, or wish were different, that’s what we will start to see more of. Luckily, the opposite is also true: when we are on the lookout for all the things we do have, we welcome more things to be grateful for into our lives.
Looking to find more ways to cultivate more gratitude in your daily life? Here are some suggestions:
- Use visualization. Bring to mind someone or something that you’re grateful for. Bring to mind all the ways that this person or thing enhances your life, and spend a few moments basking in these feelings of gratitude.
- Start a daily gratitude journal. Each day, write down three things you’re grateful for.
- Revisit the past with gratitude. Gratitude doesn’t just have to be about what we currently have. Think back to difficulties you’ve experienced in the past. Are you grateful for any of the lessons that those difficulties have taught you? To be clear, you do not have to be grateful for the experiences themselves, but rather the lessons you took away from those experiences.
- Take action on your gratitude. Remember when we discussed hedonic adaptation, the tendency to become so attuned to something that we slowly stop appreciating its value? We take for granted many of the things we are grateful for, so intentionally try to turn your gratitude into actions. Are you grateful for your friends? Give them a call. Grateful for having a healthy body? Move your body by taking a yoga class or going for a walk. It may seem obvious, but all too often we dedicate so much of our time to things that deplete us and not on things that enhance our lives. On a similar note….
- Express feelings of gratitude outwardly. If you are grateful for someone in your life, share those feelings of gratitude with them. You can do this by writing them a letter or verbalizing these feelings to them. We often assume other people know how much we appreciate them, and even if they do know, it doesn’t hurt to share those feelings with them again!
- Find gratitude for what you don’t have. We often think of gratitude in terms of what we do have, but it can also be for all that we don’t have. For example, “I am grateful for not having any debt, for not having to work on weekends, for not having to commute to work” etc.
- Reframe current difficulties with gratitude. For example, are you frustrated by all the dirty dishes that need cleaning? At that moment, find gratitude for a) having food to put on your dishes and b) the loved ones surrounding you that enjoyed a meal with you. Reframe cleaning your home to gratitude for having a home that needs cleaning and having so many cherished belongings that need organizing. You can also change the wording to one that feels more appreciative. For example, instead of “I have to pick my kids up from school today” can be reframed to “I get to pick my kids up from school today.”
- Volunteer regularly. Volunteering should have its own blog post for how beneficial it can be. In terms of gratitude, however, volunteering is beneficial for two reasons: it gives others a reason to feel grateful, and it reminds you of your privileges and fortunes.
- Create a gratitude collage. Fill it with images of people or things you are grateful for or quotes that remind you to be grateful—bonus points for hanging this collage where you can see it often.
One final caveat about gratitude: The goal of gratitude is not to erase negative situations. Two things can be true at the same time: we can acknowledge that there are still things we wish were different or are displeased with and also acknowledge that there is probably much more that is going right for us or that we are content with.