William Arthur Ward stated that “gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” I can’t think of a better way to sum up the transformative enchantment that happens during the month of November. I know that gratitude is a word that gets tossed about every Fall, but the act of being grateful, even when it isn’t during the Thanksgiving holiday, has the power to change the very essence of daily life into something purely magical, and there are some psychological studies that illustrate that. This article addresses a scientific study that demonstrated how a person who practices gratitude is emotionally happier, physically healthier, and socially stronger, what keeps people from being grateful, and different ways to cultivate a mindset of gratitude in your daily life.
Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, and University of Miami psychology professor Dr. Michael McCullough, presented a study on gratitude that supported a relationship between gratitude and an individual’s overall health.
“In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.”
The group that wrote about what they were grateful for became happy no matter what other chaos may have been occurring in their lives because they modified their focus. You too can do the same with yours by simply focusing on a positive and being grateful where you feel it expand your heart. The following gratitude benefits were detailed in the Emmons and McCullough study, but they are by no means the only benefits to living a life filled with gratitude.
Practicing gratitude makes you happy. When you examine your life and where you are at this present moment and you recognize all the people who helped you arrive where you are, you can’t help but to be grateful. It is impossible for any of us to be here in this moment without the contributions of our family, friends, colleagues, and even those who presented themselves as enemies. Each person you have encountered in your life left you with a gift, even if at the time it seemed more like a gut punch. When we switch our mindset from everything happens to me to everything happens within me, just that shift transmutes a negative experience into something transformative. You can take any experience that happens in life and find one positive focus and express gratitude for it - even if it is something small. When you take that one positive and place your focus on it, you can build an entire new world upon it.
Practicing gratitude makes you physically healthier. Practicing gratitude releases chemicals in the brain that can make a person feel better and it can help a person recover at a faster rate. Gratitude produces a wave of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical produced within the body that generates a natural high; it creates a pleasant feeling that motivates you to repeat a behavior so you can feel it again. In addition to dopamine, it also increases the body’s serotonin production. Serotonin produces feelings of happiness, it is a mood stabilizer, and it helps us feel relaxed. So when we focus on the positives in our life either by stating them out loud, meditating on them, or writing them down, our brain releases serotonin that boosts our mood, increases our determination, and kick starts inspiration. The more a person practices gratitude, the more their neural pathways shift to recognizing what is going positive in life instead of what is going wrong.
Practicing gratitude makes you socially stronger. When a person practices gratitude, they are more compassionate, forgiving, and socially outgoing than someone who doesn’t have a gratitude practice, and that is because it changes how a person perceives and interacts with others. Compassion starts by extending inward. It is being kind to you and forgiving yourself for the mistakes that you hold on to. It is turning down the critical voice in your head and turning up the level of personal acceptance. Cultivating a mindset of gratitude makes a person practice self-reflection, and that leads to understanding yourself and others. When you take the time to examine what you believe and the why behind it, you can identify areas where you are missing the compassion mark with others. Self-awareness enhances your understanding of other people that you meet, and it is the key component to holding space without judgement for someone when they are having a difficult period in their life. When we see people through compassionate eyes, we can forgive them when they make a mistake and thus strengthen our relationships. When we express gratitude to those that are close to us, they feel valued. If a person is questioning how they contribute to the world, helping them feel like they are doing something that is good can literally shift their reality into something beautiful. When you make someone feel encouraged and believed in, they are motivated and able to reciprocate gratitude outward to other people they encounter. Gratitude in social circles is the gift that keeps on giving.
There are some things that can hinder a person’s ability to express gratitude. They are the following:
1. Comparing yourself to others. When we focus our attention outwards and start comparing ourselves to those around us, we harm our psychological well-being. One thought that started with “I like that girl’s outfit” can quickly lead to “I’ll never look that good in that style because my body is just too big.” That thought can lead to another thought, and, before you know it, your life isn’t as good as everyone around you, and you are never going to make a difference anywhere in your life. Ouch! That is why it is important not to compare. If you find yourself going down this thought trail, the first thing to do is to pay attention that you are having that thought, and then shift it by replacing that thought with something that you are grateful for about you. If this seems difficult, then generate a list of 10 qualities that you like about you, and whenever you recognize yourself comparing, pull it out and read it.
2. Obsession with the past and fixation on the future. When we focus on our past, that can lead to depression. We cannot change what is behind us; we can only learn from it. When we place too much emphasis on the future, then we place ourselves in a heightened anxious state because we don’t know what will happen in the future until it unfolds. Gratitude is living in the present moment. When you feel yourself drifting backwards or even too far forwards, stop for a moment. Think about one thing that is going wonderfully in the present moment, and then let yourself feel what it is like to achieve the next step in your goals forward – don’t skip ahead to the end. Let yourself feel the hope for the future and let it motivate you.
3. Fear about how others perceive you. I remember having a conversation with a friend about how I was afraid of how I would come across in public. She told me that other people’s opinion of me was really none of my business. Fear of what other people think about you can easily become an obsession that will rob you from performing at your best level. You cannot control what other people think – some people are going to love what you do, and some people won’t. Whatever they choose, you cannot let it steal your joy. Replace fear and worry with positive feelings or memories filled with love, hope, and joy. Amp up the gratitude when you feel the fear monster making an appearance and get out there and live your best life minus other people’s opinions.
Now that you can identify what hinders someone from expressing gratitude, here are four suggestions to help you increase it.
1. Create and maintain a gratitude journal. Yes, a gratitude journal is a simple tool, but it is a powerful one. It can help cultivate a positive mindset, increase happiness, improve overall well-being, and reduce stress by shifting your focus from what you want to what you already have. A gratitude journal is simply a place to record your appreciation for what is positive in your life. Some prompts to help get you started could be people, situations, events that you are grateful for. Set a goal to write down three items each day. At the end of the year, that is 1,095 positive items that have happened to you – that’s a lot!
2. Guided meditation. There are many guided meditations on YouTube that can be used to work on increasing gratitude. Some take only five minutes while others can take up to 30, but they are all helpful. Each meditation will ask you to think of objects, people, or moments that you are grateful for. You are given the opportunity to express thanks and then to feel gratitude welling up within you. Meditation is powerful because it changes your brain chemistry, slows your thoughts, improves your focus, and reduces fear, anxiety, and depression.
3. Write a letter of appreciation to someone who has made an impact on your life. Writing a letter of appreciation to express gratitude is always a positive to someone who has aided you in some way. The act of writing the letter will make you feel positive because you know that it will make the person who receives the letter feel outstanding. When you sit down to write the letter, just be you. Don’t worry about how the sentences sound or if you are coming across corny. You aren’t! Just write the sentences out like the person is standing in front of you.
4. Gratitude focused craft. These are great for you as an individual, but it is also a way to involve others in cultivating a group gratitude mindset. The act of putting the craft together is a great way to talk about what it means to be grateful. It provides you with an opportunity to bond as a family or friend group and share what is important to you. One craft you can do is to make gratitude jars for each member of your group, and each person contributes a piece of paper detailing why they are grateful for that person. In October at Living Life the Happy Way, we crafted gratitude boxes with clay art. Through the creative process, each person shared what they were grateful for, and they were given sheets of paper to add to each throughout the month of November. There are numerous crafts online that you can use with your family and friends, just search out the one that speaks to your heart.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is something that will produce happiness, preserve your health, and strengthen your friendships. This month let’s all grasp the power of gratitude and strive to cultivate understanding and compassion for others. The Dalai Lama said that “just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” I challenge each of you to create a ripple effect of positivity, empathy, and kindness that has the capability to alter lives and make our world a better place. Happy Thanksgiving!