Everybody knows that you should be grateful for what you’ve got. We have all heard that we should develop an ‘attitude of gratitude’ but the problem is that we aren’t often told how to do that properly. Because we aren’t told how to, we try to be generally happier with our lot in life, which gives us the tiniest spike of happiness, but it’s often not enough to get us hooked on the gratitude habit.
In light of this, I started to ask myself the questions, why should we feel gratitude? What benefits are there to having a feeling of appreciation for the things that are in our lives?
The simplest and most straight-forward answer to these questions is that being grateful in general provides no distinct or measurable benefit whatsoever, other than of course, the previously mentioned slightly increased feeling that life can’t be so bad if you have something to be grateful for.
So, if being grateful in general for your lot in life doesn’t provide significant benefits, are there more effective ways of being grateful? The answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’ but you will have to read on to understand exactly how.
According to the Roman philosopher Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” If you believe some of the studies that have occurred in the past 15 years or so, then you may well begin to agree with him. An interesting side note to the reason that we don’t have a lot more research into gratitude is that until in the late 1990’s very little had been conducted into it with psychologists preferring to focus on ‘troubled minds’ up until then. That all changed when Dr Martin Seligman coined the phrases ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘Authentic Happiness’.
So what does the research tell us?
According to Robert Emmons (a world leader into research into gratitude) there are 5 key benefits to actively practicing gratitude:
Increased Happiness: The active practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%.
Sustained Happiness: Actively practicing gratitude over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not longer.
Reduced Materialism: Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and the successes of others in terms of possessions accumulated and are less envious of other people.
Increased Prosociality: Being pro-actively grateful increases the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others. Grateful individuals are recognised as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks.
Other Benefits: Emmons’ research showed that cultivating gratitude can bring other health benefits, such as longer and better quality sleep time which in turn leads to better concentration.
When people realize these benefits are available, the natural next question is “So how do I actively practice gratitude?”
One of the simplest ways of actively practicing gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal.
As part of his research, Emmons asks people to write something they feel grateful for. He recommends that you make entries 4 times a week, for as little as 3 weeks. His research shows this is often enough to create a meaningful difference in one level of happiness.
At first much of the research was reliant on self-measured and reported, feelings of well-being; if people felt better they told the researchers that they felt better. More recently Emmons focus has turned to measuring objective data such as cortisol and stress levels, as well as heart rate variability.
Another researcher into the field of gratitude, Dr Richard Davidson has been spending his time monitoring brain activation patterns. His research backs up the claims of Seligman and Emmons showing how the active practice of gratitude can rewire activation patterns in the frontal lobes.
I thought that it would be cool to conduct my own experiment.
I have been keeping my own gratitude journal for the last three months and I can say categorically without doubt that I do feel happier because of it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it has turned me into an ever smiling optimist. To be more accurate, I would say that rather than worrying if my glass is half empty or half full, I’m now just grateful to have a glass in the first place.
Here are some specific tips for those of you who may be interested in keeping a gratitude journal for yourselves.
- Go deep rather than wide. I feel happier when I nail the reason for my gratitude. So for example I feel better writing “I’m grateful for the way that the sunshine made me feel warm today I was expecting it to be cold”, rather than “It was sunny today”.
- People trump things. I find that when I am grateful towards people it has more of an impact than when I am grateful for a thing or situation. So for me “I am grateful for the way that my wife Lucy always seems to find a way of making things fun”, beats “I’m grateful I have a car”.
- Do it with purpose. I have kept a journal for many years but keeping a gratitude journal meant that I had to specifically look for things to be grateful for and I had to make sure I was clear about why I was grateful.
- If I’m stuck I take the double negative approach. So I look at an aspect of my life and ask myself “How much less happy would this area of my life be without this person in it?”
- Enjoy and remember surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude due to the pleasant emotional attachment they generate.
- Avoid becoming a gratitude junkie.
That last one is really, really important. I found that when I started keeping the journal I quickly became obsessed with trying to find positives in EVERYTHING. So for example I even made one entry that said, “Hurt my ankle today, I am grateful that I can feel the pain and that it isn’t paralysed”. Another example of trying to find the positive in the trivial was, “Opened the refrigerator door and found I had enough milk to last the day without having to go to the store”.
Keep the journal for the things that you are genuinely grateful for. Emmons research shows, it is better to make 5 specific / detailed quality entries a week than 30 lesser more general ones.
In my work as a professional speaker I conduct informal research into emotional intelligence and attitude I often create little formulas to help me remember key life lessons. With regards to gratitude I have created a lovely little formula that for me sums up the key. The formula is:
e + f + g = H
For me it means that when my (e)xperiences are (f)ocused on specific (g)ratitudes they make me (H)appiest.
So have you got something to be grateful for? If you do, please feel free to share it in the comments box below
Steve Houghton-Burnett is a professional speaker and entrepreneur. Through his work he gives people the courage and confidence to challenge and choose their own attitude and behaviours. He shares his informal research at SimpleLifeFormulas.com