Whether you are channel surfing for something to watch on TV, reading your social media feeds, or checking out random articles online, you are likely to come across something about the “attitude of gratitude.” It sounds a little like a Hallmark-holiday in the making, and if we didn’t already have Thanksgiving, we’d probably have Gratitude Day by now, but seriously, there is a lot of science behind all the buzz about gratitude.
Expressing Gratitude Increases Happiness
The correlation between gratitude and overall happiness is unexpected because we tend to think of being thankful as something that goes with a near-miss or getting something you want. It’s easy to make the connection of gratitude associated with relief, say when there’s an accident but nobody’s hurt. Or somebody is hurt but they are going to be okay. That’s when we say “thank God” and really mean it.
When somebody gives you a nice gift, or loans you 20 bucks when you’re totally broke, it’s easy to see how being grateful and being happy go together. But getting stuff can’t be the underlying force to daily happiness. So what’s the gratitude connection?
The Scientific Study of Gratitude
Robert Emmons, PhD. is a leading expert on gratitude. He runs a lab at University of California, Davis, where research is focused on acquiring scientific data on all aspects of gratitude. His website, Emmons Lab, has more info if you want to delve into it further
The YouTube channel SoulPancake has posted a lot of fun videos about the science of happiness, including one of an experiment in gratitude, based on Emmons’ work. They got unsuspecting participants to take a happiness test, then write about someone they appreciated—but then they went a step further and made them call the person and read what they wrote. After the call, the participants then took a similar test and the results showed that happiness increased up to 19%, with significantly higher percentages among the ones who were able to tell the person about it (some were not able to get in touch with their person).
So how do you test gratitude and its effects? The studies often have people split into groups and one focuses on recording things they appreciate, or are grateful for, while the other group notes grievances. When the study period is complete, researchers note differences between the two groups. They have found that people who kept gratitude journals were more optimistic and even exercised more and had fewer physical symptoms. Another interesting finding has been that participants in the gratitude group were more likely to have offered support or helped someone with a personal problem.
There are several other university professors who have conducted research on gratitude, in addition to many other studies of various sorts. The approaches and metrics are different, but they are consistently finding that people who experience and express gratitude are happier.
How to Start Your Own Practice of Gratitude
There are many different ways to increase your own gratitude. Here are a few that are easy to do and have been found to be very helpful.
Write in a gratitude journal daily – Some people like to start the morning by writing down what they are they are thankful for that day. Looking at the day as a series of opportunities and gifts reframes everything in a positive light.
For example, if you are nervous about a presentation you have to give at work, focusing on appreciating that you have a job and the opportunity to share your knowledge and skills gives you a much more empowered outlook. If you got any help from colleagues or support staff in preparing the presentation, include them in your list. You can even be grateful that you have a PowerPoint presentation to guide you along and you don’t have to talk and do your own illustrations on a flip pad. Even the tech we take for granted is something to be grateful for!
Write a thank-you note or appreciation letter every week – Letter writing is becoming a lost art, so you can even develop a cultural skill when you write your letters, but if you really can’t get into that, or if you know you won’t take the time, then write an email, but the important thing is that you think about someone you appreciate, and you tell them about it. Don’t just say “thanks” though, talk about what it is they do for you and what it means to you or how it helps. This practice has the dual benefits of making you feel good because you are focusing on something positive in your life, and it also helps to solidify the relationship between you and that person; healthy relationships are key to human wellbeing.
Meditate – A simple meditation of sitting silently and focusing on one thing you are grateful for will help clear out negative thoughts and generate positive energy. Mindfulness meditation that involves simply focusing on your breathing or the present moment without judging any thoughts or occurrences is also great for enhancing your ability to experience gratitude because you are practicing letting go of negative associations and simply experiencing what is. We tend to have a lot of mental noise that equates to complaints and criticisms, so it’s very helpful to regularly meditate to train your mind to perceive without attaching the judgements that make you feel worse. If you don’t like someone and start to list their faults or think about how much you dislike them every time they walk in the room, you make it impossible to be happy in that moment, but if you can simply note that they are there without criticism, their presence doesn’t control how you feel.
These are just a few ways to start making gratitude part of your personal routine. Any time you focus on appreciating the people and things in your life, you make a little stride toward increasing your own happiness. Ready to start? Tell us something you’re grateful for in the comments below.