Adopting an Attitude of Gratitude
Long a staple of religious and philosophical study, gratitude has been gaining popularity in recent years. As more psychologists and scientists study the effects of gratitude on emotional and mental health, the results of adopting an attitude of gratitude are becoming a significant part of mainstream culture. Let's take a look at some recent discoveries regarding the connection between gratitude and general well-being. Then, we can mine some strategies to incorporate more gratitude into everyday routines.
In recent years, studies by the likes of Michael McCullough, Robert Emmons, and Martin Seligman have unearthed some pretty incredible findings. Here are just a few.
- It is noted that those who maintain weekly gratitude journals have fewer physical symptoms, exercise more regularly, genuinely feel more positive about their lives in general, and feel more optimistic about the immediate future than those who keep journals about normal everyday events or stressors in their lives.
- Daily conversations regarding gratitude lead to increased degrees of energy, attentiveness, alertness, determination, enthusiasm, and sleep duration/quality. In addition, while grateful people don't tune out the negative events of their lives, they report decreased levels of stress and depression.
- Those who make gratitude exercises a part of their daily life are likelier to have recently offered to help others with personal or emotional difficulties.
- People whom naturally gravitate towards gratitude tend to place less emphasis on the acquisition of material goods and don't equate the possession of material goods with success. They are also more likely to share their material possessions with other people.
- Finally, recent studies suggest that those who practice gratitude daily may even be able to delay (or eliminate) the onset of heart disease.
So the big question, then, is why.
While the whole process is part of a complex integration of our bodies' moods, thoughts, endocrine health, and brain chemistry and other systems that is really outside the range of this post, much of it can be boiled down to this: Our thoughts can create actual physiological changes in our bodies. These changes, then, influence our mental and physical well-being. That old adage of "mind over matter" carries some weight. In essence, regular focus on gratitude and other positive thoughts influences our perception of health and even, possibly, actual objective measure of physical health (e.g. improved immune responses and fewer instances of illness).
So how do we actually adopt an attitude of gratitude? It's really about making a conscious effort to think in new ways. Fortunately, there are some very simple exercises that are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. As mentioned in examples above, a gratitude journal is a very common way to focus on the positives. Gratitude journals can be as elaborate or as simple is you like. Just jotting down one single thing for which you are grateful each day is often enough to move the needle.
Another option is to talk about feelings of gratitude. Either in one-on-one situations or in groups, starting a daily conversation about gratitude is quite easy. For example, these conversations can start with simple questions, such as, "What was the best thing that happened to you today?", or "What is one thing you can feel happy about right now?" When having these types of conversations, we focus on the positive in our own lives and we are exposed to the positive things happening with others. This kind of amplification increases the overall effect of gratitude and helps strengthen relationships between those involved in such discussions. In short, gratitude begets gratitude.
Schedules can be unpredictable and it may not always be easy to have a regular gratitude practice routine for journaling or conversation. There are other options, though. Often tied to the practice of mindfulness, gratitude can be expressed in the appreciation of everyday things, such as:
- how pretty a flower looks;
- how another person shared something with you; or,
- how you simply have a comfortable place to sit when you get tired.
These types of things can be easy to overlook in our day-to-day lives. When we work on noticing and appreciating the little things in everyday life, it increases feelings of gratitude and, by extension, happiness.