We say these words all too often, frequently without thinking or feeling.
Most of us know that being grateful is something we should be doing, but what if expressing gratitude actually translates to improved health? Research is beginning to show just how healthy this practice might be.
Dr. Robert Emmons is professor at the University of California-Davis, and one of the leading scholars investigating the healthy benefits of gratitude. He describes the first major studies of this subject in his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Dr. Emmons’ research has found that grateful people can increase their “set point” for happiness by as much as 25 percent, sustaining it for several months.
The evidence for this is groundbreaking.
It contradicts the widely held notion that people’s set points for happiness are fixed and unchanging. Not only are these set points flexible, but some say gratitude has done more for them than improve things by just a bit. Individuals have gone so far as to say that the regular practice of gratitude has dramatically changed their lives, impacting family, friends and everyone else around them.
Gratitude can pack a positive punch.
The good news is we can all do this. But in order to practice gratitude, we must first understand what it is.
Dr. Emmons describes how being grateful goes beyond everyday conceptions towards an idea that is much more complex. To have gratitude is to first acknowledge receipt of something valuable, to then feel thankful for it and be inclined to offer kindness back. It comes from Latin words like gratis, meaning to get something for free, and grace, translated as the freely offered love and favor of God. Gratitude is described in a variety of ways – as a feeling, a virtue, an attitude and a choice.
The idea of gratitude as a practice involves a two-step process according to Emmons: first, an awareness of the goodness or giftedness of life, that there are elements of living that make it worthwhile. It is followed by the notion that receiving this gift, at least in part, comes from someone or something else. The recognition that this goodness lies at least partially outside of the self is an important step toward feeling and expressing gratitude. It implies an essential need for humility.
By recognition, we are also talking about seeing things in a potentially different light. Gratitude offers the opportunity to reinterpret events or actions that at first might appear to go in one direction, but may land somewhere else. This is when gratitude can grow from a mere feeling to a transformational event. It is logical to understand feeling grateful when things go well, but what happens when life is unfortunate or even cruel?
To somehow come out of difficult times with a new perception or understanding – seeing a benefit as opposed to a curse – can be a critical rethinking of things. This can alter the trajectory of our lives. People who experience gratitude in the midst of dire circumstances or tragedy consistently report more and better feelings of happiness, less depression, anxiety and poor outcomes down the road as compared to those who do not.
Practicing gratitude may be one of the best things to do when times get tough.
The greatest challenge in this practice is that we just might not get around to doing it. It’s not that we choose to be ungrateful, we just pass by on the chance. Most of us are running around so fast in an effort to manage our lives, we don’t even see what we have to be grateful for. It can be so easy to take for granted the simple gifts that show up in our day to day existence in place of “to do” lists, stressors, and the upsets of yesterday.
Gratitude isn’t for those chasing their tails or feeling intellectually sluggish. We cannot shift into neutral and drift through the day suddenly to find a grateful lifestyle waiting on our doorstep. Nor is gratitude something we can be forced into just because it’s the right thing to do.
As Emmons points out:
“Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding and [though] gratitude is a conscious decision, [it] does not imply that it is an easy decision. Similarly, feeling as if we should feel grateful after we have just been sermonized might produce resentment, not gratitude.”
Above all, when you look at the philosophical debate, taking the stories about gratitude expressed around the world and throughout history, and matching them with current science, understand that practicing gratitude is not only a good thing, it is essential, especially in our present culture and circumstances.
Dr. Weil and I strongly believe that feeling and expressing gratitude is one of the very best health strategies to utilize. To maximize the effects, it is important to do both: feel grateful and express gratitude, each of which is a distinct practice.
Here are some suggestions for how to do this:
- Remind yourself. Although the feeling may be easy to experience, the daily practice of gratitude takes discipline. Some days will be better than others, but find ways to redirect your tendency to take life for granted and be grateful for the gifts and blessings you currently have. Anchor this to your daily meditation or prayer practice. Write sticky notes as a reminder. Whatever it takes to keep you tuned to feeling and expressing gratitude, devote some of your energy to do this on a regular basis.
- Gratitude spiral. I use this every morning during my walking meditation. I say a quick prayer, and then begin to think of everything I may be thankful for including family, health, being alive, warmth on a cool day, seeing the rising sun over the mountains – anything I can consciously think of. I look at what might have happened yesterday that I could be grateful for, and then I take a look towards the future and imagine things that I would like to create in my life. I picture myself accomplishing whatever I see in my mind’s eye and offering “thanks” as if it has already occurred.
- Gratitude journal. Make mental notes throughout the day about what things to be grateful for and then regularly enter them in a notebook or journal. Do this in the morning or at bedtime, once a day or once weekly. Regularly assigning time allows you to develop gratitude into a practice.
- Gratitude visit. Write a letter of appreciation to someone who has had a beneficial influence on you, then meet that person and read the letter to them face to face.
- Say “Grace” at Dinner time. This may bring two healthy practices to the table (literally) – eating together and practicing gratitude. Do this either by saying something to express thankfulness for the food you have received or go around the table asking each person what they might be grateful for this day. You can even splurge and do both, one after the other.
Ultimately, the point of practicing gratitude is to change perspective and allow us the opportunity to see things in a different light. Take advantage of this chance to transform yourself and move your emotional set-point in the direction of happiness and contentment.