When you practice gratitude, it helps you focus on the good things happening in your life, and trust me, once you start looking for them, you will be amazed by how many they are. Many of us tend to consider good and positive things in our lives normal, thus ignoring them, and we immediately focus our attention on anything that bothers us. Be that a distracted person bumping into you while walking, or bad weather, or a random remark from a colleague you feel was directed towards you, and so many more, usually not important things that happen throughout the day. Just learn to practice gratitude and your life will improve drastically.
What is Gratitude?
If I were to ask you what gratitude is, the first thing you would think of would most likely be the “thank you” you say to somebody who has helped you in some way or gave you a gift. This is usually what we understand through gratitude. Psychologists say it is a bit more: it is a positive emotion felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of help or gift. It can also be directed towards the person or higher power giving you that gift or help.
Psychologists have been studying gratitude and it’s effects for a long time. One such paper I like defines gratitude this way: “Gratitude is a positively valenced emotion that can arise when another person—a benefactor—does something kind for the self” 2)Putting the “You” in “Thank You” Examining Other-Praising Behavior as the Active Relational Ingredient in Expressed Gratitude – Sara B. Algoe, Laura E. Kurtz, Nicole M. Hilaire. This research concluded that “other praising is a theoretically and empirically overlooked, yet key behavioral mechanism through which expressed gratitude can impact the benefactor on precisely the outcome that has already forecasted relational growth (i.e., target’s perception of expresser responsiveness) as well as others that should also do that, even if indirectly (i.e., target’s positive emotions and felt loving).”
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, defines gratitude like this: “Gratitude has a dual meaning: a worldly one and a transcendent one. In its worldly sense, gratitude is a feeling that occurs in interpersonal exchanges when one person acknowledges receiving a valuable benefit from another. Gratitude is a cognitive-affective state that is typically associated with the perception that one has received a personal benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned but rather because of the good intentions of another person (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). The word gratitude is derived from the Latin gratia, meaning favor, and gratus, meaning pleasing. All derivatives from this Latin root have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing. Much of human life is about giving, receiving, and repaying benefits and kindnesses. In this sense, gratitude functions to help regulate relationships by solidifying, affirming, and strengthening them.” 3)GratitudeasaPsychotherapeutic Intervention – Robert A. Emmons, Robin Stern
The Two Stages of Gratitude
There are different opinions regarding how many stages of gratitude there are, but the one that I resonate with is Robert Emmons. He is the world’s leading scientist expert on gratitude, so this is not a surprise.
Emmons considers there are two stages of gratitude:
1. The affirmation of gratitude. We simply affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we have received, or good deeds that have been done for us. This does not mean we ignore the burdens, hassles or complains and that life is perfect. The important thing is that when we see life as a whole, gratitude stimulates us to see identify the goodness in it.
2. Figuring out where the goodness comes from. We identify the sources of goodness in our lives. Some will be internal, but most of these are external. These sources can be other people, higher powers, or animals who gave us gifts or helped us in some way.
These two stages of gratitude combine the acknowledgment of goodness in our lives and the identification of its sources.
Historical and Religious Views on Gratitude
Gratitude has attracted the attention of philosophers even from ancient times. For example, the roman philosopher (amongst many other roles) Marcus Tullius Cicero, saw gratitude as the parent of all virtues: “In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.” 4)The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Cicero. (1891); translated by C. D. Yonge. George Bell & Sons: London. 80-81.
Most religions and spiritual movements include gratitude in their rituals and practices. For example, Christians manifest strong gratitude towards God. The purpose of Islam five daily prayers is to show gratitude to Allah. Regarding Judaism, I think Josh Franklin, rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons said it best: “To be Jewish is to be thankful”5)https://forward.com/culture/books/414468/why-thankfulness-and-gratitude-are-jewish-emotions/. Probably the most representative for this article is Buddhism: “Gratitude should be cultivated as a habit not dependent on conditions” 6)https://kaiya.co/blogs/news/the-buddha-on-gratitude.
Why Should you Practice Gratitude?
Robert Emmons wrote multiple papers on the psychology of gratitude, indicating that being more grateful can lead to increased levels of well-being and increased physical health. Here are the four most important reasons his research led him to select for practicing gratitude7)Why Gratitude Is Good:
1. It allows you to celebrate the present. The human mind gets used very fast with positive things and starts to ignore them. This is why after you purchase something new, like a house, a car or a new phone, you are excited about it for a short while. After that, you get used to it, and you feel the need to find something else new. Our minds have also evolved to focus on the negative events in order to keep us safe. News media figured that out a long time ago, and that’s why you mostly see negative news – they attract your attention.
When you practice gratitude, you focus on the good things happening in your life. This allows you, for example, to enjoy new or good things for a longer time, making the most out of them. You will be more present, live the moment, and notice positive emotions way more often than before.
2. It blocks negative emotions. You can’t feel grateful and angry, envious or regretful at the same time. These are very different states of mind, and while you feel grateful, you will not be able to feel envy or anger towards somebody. This means that as long as you focus on being grateful, you will be safe from those negative emotions.
3. Increases your resistance to stress. People who practice gratitude tend to recover more quickly after traumatic events and suffering. It seems they develop a better way to interpret negative things and events, and that protects them against their long-lasting effects.
4. Gratitude practice increases your self-worth. Once you get used to noticing all the good things others do for you, you understand they see value and good in you, so you start to see and feel them too.
How Does Gratitude Contribute to Happiness?
Professors Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon and David Schkade published a paper on pursuing happiness, where they conclude that a person’s chronic happiness is made of three major factors8)Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change – Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005):
- genetics ~50%
- circumstances ~10%
- intentional activity ~40%
40% is quite a significant percent, and this means that changing your intentional activities can have happiness-boosting effects. Especially if you are not doing many intentional activities that increase your happiness level, there are many you can easily start and get used to practicing. Besides performing acts of kindness, setting goals and fulfilling them or exercising, practicing gratitude is an easy habit you can use to increase your happiness level.
How to Practice Gratitude
1. Gratitude Journal
I find keeping a gratitude journal to be the easiest and most effective way to incorporate gratitude practice into my life. Depending on your personal preference, you can try a physical journal or an app. I prefer the app because I always have the phone with me, so whenever I recognize a thing I am grateful for, I take out the phone and write it down. This both makes the time you feel grateful last longer, and also helps you remember to look for things to be grateful for throughout the day. In time, you develop the habit of looking for things to be grateful for, and you are less prone to take things for granted or to experience ungrateful thoughts.
It is important to actually write down this, not just run over facts in your head. When you write them, try to note as much detail as you can. For example, if this event involves another person, try to write what she/he said or did, hot it made you feel, and even what you think caused this event.
You might find it easier to set a certain time of day for this, for example right after waking up in the morning, or just before going to sleep.
2. Acts of Kindness
You can also try to practice gratitude by simply acting kindly towards a friend or even a stranger because somebody else did that for you. Gratitude can be contagious in a good way. When somebody shows gratitude towards you, you are likely to feel the need to do the same for somebody else.
3. Letters of Gratitude
Write a gratitude letter to somebody that helped you or did something good for you, and you did not have the time or opportunity to properly thank for. Dr. Steven Toepfer from the Kent State University conducted an experiment to determine the impact of writing gratitude letters on happiness and life satisfaction9)Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing – Steven M. Toepfer & Kathleen Walker. Another important study on this topic is “Positive Psychology Progress:
Empirical Validation of Interventions“, conducted by Martin Seligman & Tracy Steen from the University of Pennsylvania10)Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions – Martin E. P. Seligman & Tracy A. Steen.
They concluded that writing gratitude letters has a significant impact on happiness and well-being for up to one month. After this interval, the effects diminish, so it is recommended to do this once a month or once every six weeks.
If the letter is addressed to somebody alive, do your best to deliver the letter personally. You can also send it by mail, but the effect will be less powerful. If the person is no longer alive, keep the letter or store it in a place where there are other things related to that person.
If you are a religious person, you can practice gratitude while praying. There are so many preyers centered on gratitude that, you might have already been doing this. Try to specifically choose some prayers dedicated to being grateful and include them in your daily prayer session.
Try to include gratitude into your meditation ritual. If you do not meditate yet, please consider building this habit. It is a very powerful biohack that one should practice daily.
Psychology research confirms that gratitude is an important social emotion that can improve your happiness and well-being. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can have a strong positive impact on your life.
Whenever you have a few free moments, choose one of the mentioned ways to practice gratitude and focus on the good things in your life. You might be surprised by the result!
|↑1||gratitude – Cambridge Dictionary|
|↑2||Putting the “You” in “Thank You” Examining Other-Praising Behavior as the Active Relational Ingredient in Expressed Gratitude – Sara B. Algoe, Laura E. Kurtz, Nicole M. Hilaire|
|↑3||GratitudeasaPsychotherapeutic Intervention – Robert A. Emmons, Robin Stern|
|↑4||The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Cicero. (1891); translated by C. D. Yonge. George Bell & Sons: London. 80-81.|
|↑7||Why Gratitude Is Good|
|↑8||Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change – Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005|
|↑9||Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing – Steven M. Toepfer & Kathleen Walker|
|↑10||Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions – Martin E. P. Seligman & Tracy A. Steen|