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We usually think of gratitude once a year—when Thanksgiving rolls around. For this one day, we show our thanks and think about how lucky we are to have what we have. But once the turkey is gone, and the pumpkin pie crumbs are brushed away, we’re often quick to go back to taking for granted the little things that make life so great.
But the proof is in the pudding. Practicing gratitude can result in a host of amazing benefits. It is linked to lower levels of depression and stress. Several studies note that gratitude is linked to greater levels of optimism, improved relationships, and generally increased well-being. Practicing thankfulness was also associated with a lowered risk of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, and nicotine and alcohol dependence, as well as better daily functioning for people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One study found that practicing gratitude before going to sleep helped study participants quiet their minds and sleep better. And Robert Emmons, one of the foremost researchers on gratitude, has identified a wealth of benefits that comes with practicing gratitude, including stronger immune systems; lower blood pressure; feeling more alert, optimistic, happy, and forgiving; and feeling less lonely and isolated.
All these benefits for our and others’ well-being are kind of a big deal, right? Gratitude definitely deserves a closer look not just today but every day. Research has found that human beings are typically biased toward negative information—psychologists call this a negativity bias. This was helpful thousands of years ago when we were living life as hunters and gatherers because we needed to remember where the unfriendly tribe lived or where the tiger lurked in the forest. It was essential to survival. In the modern world, though, negativity bias can keep us so hyperfocused on the not-so-good in our lives that we don’t even notice the positive happening right under our noses. Gratitude is the perfect antidote.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring the negatives in your life or blindly taking a “Pollyanna approach.” Rather, it is a way to help you weather the storms. Luckily, there are easy ways to begin practicing gratitude today. The great thing about these is that they are easy to implement and require no special training on your part.
Measure your current gratitude levels by taking Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s gratitude quiz. Take it before you start incorporating these gratitude initiatives in your life. Then measure it again later to see the impact that practicing gratefulness has had on you.
01. Stop, look, and go.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who has spent a great deal of time studying gratitude, says that gratitude happens when “we experience something that’s valuable to us. Something is given to us that’s valuable to us. And it’s really given. And when these two things come together . . . then gratefulness spontaneously rises in my heart; happiness spontaneously rises in my heart.” If you have fifteen minutes to spare in your day, Brother David’s TED Talk on gratefulness is a simple yet wonderful message.
One easy way to use Brother David’s three-step technique that he describes in his TED talk: Stop, look, and go.
When we stop, we become present to what is happening around us. This allows us to look and directly experience what is happening in that moment. Then we go on with life by acknowledging what we just witnessed. It could mean taking a few seconds to appreciate the time you are spending with a friend, a delicious meal, or the warm coat you have. Set a recurring reminder on your phone to help you remember to take advantage of this easy practice once or a few times a day. Taking just five minutes to focus on what you are grateful for has been linked to an immediate rise in mood.
02. Do the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise.
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., former president of the American Psychological Association and well-known for his work in the field of positive psychology, suggests using the “Three Good Things” exercise in his book Flourish. He instructs students to write down three good things that happened to them that day. He stresses that reasons for being grateful can be small or have great significance. After recording the event, he encourages students to ask themselves: (1) “Why did this good thing happen?” (2) “What does this mean to me?” and (3) “How can I have more of this good thing in the future?”
Along those lines, the Greater Good Science Center started the Thnx4.org initiative, which, after signing up, prompts you twice a week for three weeks to share what you are grateful for. At the end of three weeks, it will help you assess how being grateful has affected your physical and mental health.
03. Keep a gratitude journal.
Researchers Emmons and Michael McCullough found that participants in a study who were asked to record five things that they were thankful for each week for ten weeks felt better about their lives in general, more optimistic about the coming week, and more connected with others.
Emmons says that gratitude is vital when faced with suffering and hard times because it encourages us to see the bigger picture and motivates us to face these hardships. He conducted another study in which he asked people who had severe neuromuscular disorders to keep a gratitude journal. He found that the participants, despite the hardships and pain they were suffering, experienced more positive emotions, felt more optimistic, felt more connected to others, and reported longer sleep. Even when you don’t feel like practicing gratitude, Emmons says that just going through the motions can help you feel better.
It can be as simple as writing down three things you were grateful for that day. And don’t feel as if you have to always write down epic reasons to be grateful. A delicious cup of coffee is a legitimate reason to be grateful, as is a gorgeous sunset, your health, and your family. It’s more important that you feel grateful about something rather than what you are actually grateful about.
04. Make a gratitude visit.
Seligman has found in his research that those who practice gratitude visits are happier and less depressed. To make a gratitude visit, you should think of someone who has had a significant impact on your life, and write down in about three hundred words how that person has positively impacted your life. Then, he suggests you visit that person and read your letter to them. (You may want to bring tissues.) If visiting isn’t an option, you can call and read it to them. Sending it as a note might be another option, but it may not be as effective. The gratitude visit exercise prompts you to think about who has had a positive impact on your life and encourages you to think about the significance of the gift that this person gave you.
Gratitude is relatively simple to practice, yet the benefits are impressive. Rather than limiting it to a once-yearly appearance with the turkey and stuffing, try making gratitude a daily event. Choose one of these ways to practice gratitude, whether it be pausing to appreciate three things, journaling, or making a gratitude visit. Give yourself a few weeks to establish a habit. You’ll find yourself appreciating all the amazing things happening in your life.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller