“If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart
With depressing news making headlines on the nightly news and tragedy splashed across newspapers and magazines, the world can seem a depressing place. After the twinkling lights of the holidays come down, your mood might tank right along with them. In an attempt to feel happier, some people choose to practice retail therapy, surrounding themselves with material things. Others might feel as if they have to be constantly on the move and doing something to feel productive.
These things may help you feel better briefly, but there is a simpler way to boost mood that requires very little time and no money whatsoever.
Instituting a daily gratitude practice has been proven to boost mood, to improve health, and to foster a more positive outlook on life, and it only requires a few minutes a day. Gratitude as a health practice has been gaining traction in recent years in large part due to the research conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami. These two researchers have focused on gratitude in numerous studies.
In one study they randomly assigned journaling tasks to three separate groups. The first group was to record five events that they were grateful for once a week, the second was to record five weekly hassles, and the third group (the neutral control) recorded five events but were not told what to focus on, just to record five events or things that involved them. Ten weeks later, the grateful group felt 25% happier and more satisfied with their lives. The grateful exercised each week an average of 1.5 more than the group that recorded daily hassles, and they had fewer complaints about their health than the hassled group.
Not only is gratitude good for you, but it’s also contagious.
In a separate study, Dr. Emmons asked participants to keep a daily journal of the things they were grateful for, and the results were even more pronounced, with one added bonus. Not only did the journaling make the participants feel more grateful, but it also prompted them to extend goodwill and assistance towards others. They reported having more positive encounters and helping others with tasks or just by offering emotional or social support. This helpful and more positive attitude was noticed by the spouses of each group. The researchers reported that:
“Spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group).”
Gratitude seems to also have a profound physical effect also. Adults with congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs) who recorded things they were grateful for nightly reported better sleep. They woke refreshed and well-rested and reported a higher level of optimism and general well-being than adults with the same condition who did not record their gratitude. Study participants also felt more connected and positive about their social interactions as well.
The benefits of gratitude seem to extend to those diagnosed with clinical depression.
Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed patients reported a gratitude level that was only half of the gratitude levels reported by non-depressed patients.
He cites the three pillars of a grateful person in his analysis:
- Grateful people feel abundance in their lives; they do not feel deprived
- Grateful people are satisfied with simple pleasures
- Grateful people appreciate those around them
The best part about all of these findings is that a gratitude practice can be very easy to start. You don’t need special equipment, training, or extra time. There are a few keys to getting started.
Deciding that you are going to try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude is the first (and most important) step. This practice is a life-long journey.
This step is personal. Some people decide to keep a nightly gratitude journal, jotting down a couple things they are grateful for before they go to bed. Others might write thank-you letters, even overdue ones, to demonstrate gratitude. Another option is to write a list of all of the things you are grateful for, from the large (the house over your head) to the small (your dog’s greeting every day). Whatever you can stick with and practice daily is the best choice for you.
Fake it ‘til you make it
If you are not used to expressing gratitude or accentuating the positive, pretend. Maybe your gratitude journal starts out with clichéd expressions of gratitude that end up being true and heartfelt. Maybe you can’t seem to find anything to feel grateful for until you are able to really look around you and see what you are glad you don’t have. Be patient with yourself, and keep at it. Be grateful you are starting to change your outlook.
With so many electronic distractions it can be hard to block out the noise to focus on gratitude. Thankfully, practicing mindfulness fits right in with a gratitude practice and can be very simple to start. Andy Puddicombe has an easy, ten-minute TED Talk on the subject of mindfulness, and Anderson Cooper learned to cultivate mindfulness recently on an episode of 60 Minutes.
Finally, recognize gratitude as a choice
No one is doomed to a life of misery. Yes, circumstances may be difficult, but you can always choose how to respond to them. Whether you focus on the negative or accentuate the positive is up to you. As Emmons points out:
“Gratitude is a choice. We can choose to be grateful even when our emotions are steeped in hurt and resentment, or we would prefer our current life circumstances to be different.”
What do you think about starting your own gratitude practice?
Image by Cindi Albright via Flickr