We’re often advised to adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” But what does that mean, exactly?
“Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible,” say the folks atHarvard Health.
“Practicing gratitude can be a game-changer,” notesMindful.org. “It helps you notice the little wins—a stranger holding the door for you, the sun shining through your window when you wake up. Each of these small moments, strung together, create a web of well-being that, over time, strengthens your ability to notice the good.”
Gratitudeisn’t forced happiness or surface-only positivity.
As psychology professorRobert Emmons, PhD, at the University of California, Davis, puts it, gratitude “doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.”
Gratitude promotes happiness because it leads you to see life differently.
“Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack,” says Harvard Health. “Although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”
Why Gratitude Is Good for You
Learning to develop gratitude isn’t just a path to happiness: Evidence suggests it can benefit your well-being and ability to connect with others.
The Physical and Mental Benefits of Gratitude
Studies have linked gratitude, whether you come by it naturally or develop it intentionally, with tangible signs of better health.
In astudy co-led by Emmons, college students who wrote about things they were grateful for said they had fewer physical symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, than those in control groups.
Inanother trial of the same study, people with neuromuscular disease who underwent gratitude training experienced what Emmons calls “greater amounts of high-energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life and better sleep duration and quality.”
According to Mindful.org, developing greater gratitude appears to help calm the body. Brain regions activated by gratitude “are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction”; what’s more, “practicing gratitude canalter brain function in depressed individuals.”
In addition, “research shows grateful people report better physical health because they tend to engage in healthy activities such as focusing on nutrition.”
Gratitude and Connection to Other People
Adopting an attitude of gratitude also makes it easier for you to forge stronger social bonds…which are themselves a source ofwell-being.
“Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness,” says Emmons. “We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life.”
On a deeper level, “grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth,” Emmons says. “Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life—once you realize that other people have seen the value in you—you can transform the way you see yourself.”
Adopting a positive outlook can also change the way you interact with others.
In romantic relationships, gratitude “can initiate a cycle of generosity—one partner’s gratitude inspires the other to act in a way that reaffirms their commitment,” says Mindful.org. At work, Harvard Health notes that managers who thank employees “may find those employees feel motivated to work harder.”
“Gratitude is a social emotion,” Emmons adds. “I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Ways to Practice Gratitude
It isn’t hard to develop gratitude–it just takes consistent practice.
Make a Vow to Yourself to Be Grateful
“Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed,” says Mindful.org, which suggests writing your vow and posting it where you’ll see it every day.
To keep your vow, Mindful.org advises being aware of the language that you use: “Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate and abundance.”
Not feeling particularly grateful? Then fake it until you make it.
Mindful.org recommends doing things like smiling and saying thank you; “by ‘going through grateful motions,’ you’ll trigger the emotion of gratitude more often.”
Mindfulness, the ability to focus on the present moment from a calm center, also promotes gratitude.
“The more often you tune into your awareness, the greater the chances you will notice all the good that’s around you to feel gratitude for, which can then bring satisfaction and happiness,” says Mindful.org. (You can promote mindfulness by learning how to meditate; here is a simplemeditation method.)
You can also turn to prayer.
As Emmons notes, “In many spiritual traditions, prayers of gratitude are considered to be the most powerful form of prayer, because through these prayers people recognize the ultimate source of all they are and all they will ever be.”
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Writing out what you feel grateful for can help you build your gratitude muscles.
“Write down up to five things for which you feel grateful. The physical record is important—don’t just do this exercise in your head, says Mindful.org. “The goal is to remember a good event, experience, person, or thing in your life—and then enjoy the good emotions that come with it.”
Mindful.org offers the following advice for keeping a gratitude journal:
- Be specific. “‘I’m grateful that my co-workers brought me soup when I was sick on Tuesday’ will be more effective than ‘I’m grateful for my co-workers.’” Try to focus on people instead of things.
- Try subtraction. “Be grateful for the negative outcomes you avoided, escaped, prevented or turned into something positive—try not to take that good fortune for granted.” Also, ask yourself what your life would be like without certain people in it.
- See good things as gifts. Doing so keeps you from taking them for granted; “try to relish and savor the gifts you’ve received.”
- Write regularly, but not too frequently. “Evidence suggests writing occasionally (1-3 times per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling.”
Deepen Gratitude Through Your Senses
Our senses are what connect our bodies to our surroundings. By focusing on sights, smells, tastes, sounds and touches that provoke a sense of gratitude, “we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive,” says Mindful.org.
“Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift.”
To use your senses as a pathway to gratitude, take time each week to move through each sense and think to yourself, “What sight (or sound, taste, etc.) am I grateful for? How does this sight make me feel…what memories or emotions does it invoke?”
Share Gratitude with Others
Gratitude should be more than just a warm, happy feeling—it should compel you to deepen your connections with the people in your life.
“Most of us are a little bit guilty of taking our loved ones for granted,” says Mindful.org, which suggests pondering your relationships and asking yourself three questions: “‘What have I received from __?’, ‘What have I given to __?’ and ‘What troubles and difficulty have I caused?’”
Then reach out…say “thank you,” give someone a hug.
You can also be more intentional about showing gratitude by writing a thank-you note or email. “Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible,” says Harvard Health. “Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month.”
Mindful.org also suggests “spreading gratitude via your social media platforms by sharing an uplifting moment from a recent event or a lesson you learned from a book. We can all do our part in this digital age to remind each other that we have a lot to be grateful for.”
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