Gratitude is more than a simple thank you that’s casually thrown in as you leave a restaurant or buy your groceries. And it’s more than a thank you for a gift received. Instead, it’s a deep sense of appreciation for what you already have rather than an acute awareness of what you don’t have. It’s counting your blessings in spite of all the difficulties you may be dealing with in your life.
In the words of David Steindl-Rast if you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity.
What this means is that if you’re genuinely thankful for what you already have, you’re less likely to draw envious comparisons with what other people have…and you don’t. And it curbs the tendency to want more as we get more.
Why Cultivate Gratitude?
Leading psychologists and researchers have discovered that feeling genuinely grateful reduces your stress levels and makes you happier.
In a series of studies, Robert Emmons found that people who focus their attention on the things they’re really grateful for are more alert. They’re also more enthusiastic, better connected with those around them, not as lonely and sleep better. And he noted that gratitude doesn’t depend on circumstances.
These conclusions have also been supported by Chris Peterson Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. Each time he asked his students to write a ‘gratitude letter,’ they felt happier every time.
More Benefits of being Grateful
What’s more, experiments conducted by Philip Watkins show that traumatic memories fade more easily for people who regularly feel grateful. They’re also less intense, suggesting that gratitude may enhance emotional healing.
Interestingly, Robert Emmons discovered that even people who are skeptical of this whole idea can get a short-term boost to their mood by carrying out some simple gratitude exercises. As he said, once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for.
What all these studies seem to show is that gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions. It’s very hard to feel angry, envious or resentful when you’re feeling grateful.
What also comes across is that the greatest benefits come from habitually experiencing gratitude. If you can develop this pattern in your everyday life, it takes your mind off your troubles and worries.
And when you’re truly thankful for your family, friends, health, career or any other aspect of your life, this leads to a sense of contentment, which helps reduce the tendency to feel anxious and stressed out.
How to Practice Gratitude
When you’re under pressure and feeling stressed, you’re only too aware of all the problems in your life. So it can be difficult to appreciate the things you already have, but if you can make the shift in your mind, life actually gets easier.
There are several different ways of practicing gratitude. So it’s important to choose the technique that feels right for you, particularly if you’re a bit skeptical about the whole thing. What’s more, if you find that your chosen technique starts to lose its meaning or freshness, don’t hesitate to change how, when or with what frequency you express your gratitude. You’ll achieve nothing by persisting with a technique that becomes boring or does nothing for you.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
If you enjoy writing, one way to practice gratitude is to keep a journal of the things you’re thankful for.
Choose a time of the day that suits you and simply record a few things you currently feel grateful for. It may be something very simple (the smile your friend gave you when you walked in the room). Or it may be something truly significant (the right to vote). Whatever, the important thing is that it matters to you and you really appreciate it.
Ideally, keep an eye open for new things you’re grateful for every day. Beware repeating the same things over and over again. Instead, get specific and write down why you’re grateful for your family and friends, your home, your career or your leisure interests.
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s experiments suggest that making a journal entry once a week suits many people. But you may find that you want to record what you’re thankful for on a daily or ad hoc basis. It’s entirely up to you. The important thing is that you do this from the heart and not because you feel obliged to.
The other great thing about keeping a journal is that it slowly changes the way we look at our lives by altering what we focus on, and…
…you can refer to it when you’re feeling a bit down or stressed out.
Openly Express Gratitude to the People in Your Life
One of the most effective ways of expressing gratitude is directly to another person. This can be face-to-face, by phone, letter, email or text. But be specific and describe in detail what that person did for you and how it made a difference to your life.
Another approach is to share your appreciation about something with someone else. It might be a beautiful dress, live concert or tasty meal. And if what you’re grateful for isn’t directly attributable to a particular person, then give thanks to God.
With contemplation – or meditation – all you have to do is find a quiet place. Then close your eyes, think about the good things you already have and give thanks. As you do this, it reminds your subconscious mind of everything that’s important to you and provides a sense of happiness and contentment.
A Final word
The ultimate aim is to try and appreciate things in the moment.
My own experience is that expressions of gratitude need to come from the heart to have a really positive effect on your mood. But Chris Peterson advises fake it until you can make it, on the basis that your thoughts and feelings will fall in line with your words.
So if you’re feeling skeptical, give it a try. You’ve nothing to lose.
Sonja Lyubomirsky: The How of Happiness
Janice Kaplan: The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life