Being grateful for the positive things in life is an excellent way to increase happiness and one’s sense of wellbeing. For centuries, religious traditions have expounded on the value of gratitude and now, modern day scientists are starting to catch up.
Academic researchers at the University of California-Davis note that “Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.”
Below are some of the specific findings on the benefits of practicing gratitude from the lab of Dr. Robert Emmons:
1.) Individuals who write down what they’re grateful for each week tend to be more optimistic, feel better physically, and exercise more, in comparison to individuals that focus on negative or neutral events in their life.
2.) Individuals who compile gratitude lists are more apt to make progress toward their goals related to school, relationships and health.
3.) People who practice gratitude on a daily basis tend to exhibit more energy and motivation, in comparison to those who put undue attention on the difficulties in their life.
4.) Daily gratitude exercises seem to contribute to more altruistic behavior.
The idea of practicing gratitude is so intuitive, yet often hard to put into practice. As noted above, research indicates that writing down what you are grateful for in a daily or weekly journal is a great way to start cultivating this habit that can lead to greater well being and happiness. Even if you spend just a few minutes each day or week on this practice, you’ll notice a difference in how you feel.
Taking time to stop and deliberately pay attention to the positives in life is a way of reconditioning the mind. In many ways, our brains are naturally pulled toward the difficult – “the drama” – in our lives. This is likely due, at least in part, to our survival-driven neural wiring that tends to focus on what’s hard and what’s not going well as a means of self-preservation. But, as most people can attest to, this can easily become excessive and out of balance. Intentionally focusing on the positive is one way of combatting these inherent tendencies (which isn’t to say you should ignore the difficult; it’s more about finding a healthy balance).
We also live in a materialistic and competitive culture that sends the message that having more is better. This puts the focus on what’s lacking rather than what’s already there. These factors can make it difficult to see and appreciate all that is good. That’s why it’s important to develop an intentional practice of being grateful, and this can start by taking just a few minutes each day to write down everything you value in your life.
Think about the many positives that may apply to you – having people in your life that you care about and spend time with; having ample food and a comfortable place to live; having opportunities to learn things of interest; having your health, etc. You can focus on the little things that you appreciate, as well as the big ones – all of it matters. It can be good to get specific. For example, you can reflect upon certain things that happened in your day that brought you joy, peace, or inspiration. Maybe it was a brief conversation you had with a neighbor; the satisfaction you got from finishing a project; or a nice meal shared with your loved one. Whatever it is, simply note it and take time to reflect upon how it made you feel, rather than quickly moving on to deal with the “problems” out there.
While it’s important to not avoid what’s difficult in life, in can be easy to magnify these areas, in comparison to paying attention to what is going well. Fortunately, it appears that being grateful enhances positive feelings, but at the same time does not foster a blindly optimistic attitude. As Dr. Emmons at UC Davis noted, “The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions. Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.”
As you start reconditioning the mind toward gratitude, you will likely find yourself experiencing some of the benefits that researchers have discovered. As with any new habit, it can be helpful to start with the structure of an exercise like writing in a gratitude journal on a regular basis, versus taking a more informal approach like just thinking about it (although in my book, something is better than nothing). I also highly recommend having fun with this. Get creative about the ways to notice gratitude in your life. Share it with your spouse, friends or children. Post it on your Facebook or Twitter page. Every time you put attention on what you appreciate, you’re expanding your sense of gratitude, which can lead to more happiness.