What is Gratitude?
Wow, welcome. We are so thankful that you are here to read about gratitude.
(You see what we did there? That was it. We snuck in a little gratitude right off the bat.)
So what is gratitude, anyway?
Gratitude - synonymous with thankfulness - is the expression of appreciation for something in your life, whether or not you feel it was deserved or earned. It’s taught by all major world religions, in children’s fables, in beloved movies, and from the greatest thinkers throughout history.
The practice of gratitude is as simple as taking a moment each day to recognize something you are grateful for, whether it’s an experience from that day or broader aspect of your life you appreciate. It just needs to be something, someone, or some experience that you are glad is in your life.
By cultivating gratitude, we are not only taking time each day to introduce a moment of positive feelings, but we are also developing the ability to recognize more positive aspects of our day to day life.
So, with this basic background on gratitude in mind, you may be wondering...
- Why should I practice gratitude?
- How do I practice gratitude?
Why Practice Gratitude?
Leading positive psychology researchers love gratitude. It has been proven to be a huge driver of happiness, and it's something everyone can cultivate.
Scenes like these will always be great for gratitude
In one of the first ever scientific studies on the impact of gratitude on wellbeing, it was found that a daily gratitude practice, “resulted in greater levels of positive affect, more sleep, better sleep quality, and greater optimism and a sense of connectedness to others” (1).
In other words, when you're grateful, pretty much everything in your life gets better.
Breaking it down a bit, there are many specific benefits of gratitude, including...
1. Improving your connection to others (aka, a little more lovin')
Gratitude contributes to a greater sense of connectedness to others. When we practice gratitude, we are genuinely more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support. Aka, practice gratitude, and you’ll be a better friend, a better partner, a better coworker, and a better person.
The experience of gratitude and the actions stimulated by it build and strengthen social bonds and friendships. Moreover, encouraging people to focus on the benefits they have received from others leads them to feel loved and cared for by others (Reynolds, 1983).
Gratitude, thus, is a form of love. And who doesn't want a bit more love in their lives?
Who doesn't love a good high five?
2. It just makes you feels good
How do you feel right now? Kind of meh? Bored? Upset? Tired? Happy? Regardless of how you feel, a moment of gratitude can make this moment just a little bit better.
Research has shown that the practice of gratefulness, can help improve your mood both in the moment as well as over time. Through gratitude, we legitimately become more optimistic, one of the best feelings out there (1)!
(If you want to get this boost right now, scroll to the bottom of this article and try out our 15 second gratitude practice)
3. Gratitude improves cognition
By bringing in positive emotions, gratitude has an astounding impact on our ability to better cope with stress and adversity. This in turn improves our cognition by allowing us to think more flexibly and creative. We are less likely to get locked into rigid patterns of negative thought when we practice gratitude (5,6).
Gratitude also makes you more a more fair person with better judgement. In a recent study, several researchers at the University of Southern California performed brain scans on people while they were practicing gratitude. They found the following:
When the brain feels gratitude, it activates areas responsible for feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness, economic decision-making and self-reference (7).
So in addition to feeling good, practicing gratitude may make us better decision makers. So, next thing you know, a bit of gratitude will be impressing even your boss.
4. Better health and better sleep
We all have those mornings after we have had a fantastic night of sleep that we just feel unstoppable. Those are the best. Well, good news: Gratitude has a direct impact on your sleep. Studies have shown that if you practice gratitude, you get more sleep and you get higher quality sleep.
Long story short, because gratitude keeps negative thoughts at bay, as you drift off, you're not going to be freaking out about that presentation tomorrow but will instead allow your mind to be peaceful – a powerful way to get great sleep (8).
And the health benefits of better sleep are all sorts of endless. Think more energy, more balanced weight regulation, better cardiovascular health. You name it.
To summarize: Gratitude helps us improve connectedness with others, make better decisions, have a more positive outlook on the future, increase our happiness and get better sleep. That's a lot of benefits!
But, how do we build gratitude into our lives?
Building A Gratitude Practice
Now, many of us would call ourselves gracious. We say "please" and "thank you." We even think about how it's super-nice when our boss calls out an achievement we've made at work, or when our partner allows us to munch on their side of french fries, when the metro guard just so happens to skip us when checking tickets and accidentally gives us a free ride.
We are actually grateful all the time!
But, unless you're conscious of gratitude, you could be much more thankful (and therefore live in a much more positive state). The reality is that very few of us actually take time to appreciate our lives, how good they are, and how good we are.
We are so busy comparing ourselves to others, looking over the shoulders of friends and coworkers and noticing what they have and we don't.
We are busy judging, and comparing, and honestly, hating on ourselves. “I want that! I need that! That will make things better! If I had that, I would rule the world!”
We get so swept up in this train of thought, that there is often not nearly enough space for gratitude.
Luckily, there are easy ways to make gratitude a practice, to make it a dedicated part of what you do.
With a few simple steps, we can start receiving the benefits of gratitude, drastically improving your life.
Here are some simple starting tips for developing a gratitude practice:
- Spending more time thinking / writing about one thing you are grateful for will generally produce better results than writing less about more things you are grateful for
- Being grateful for people and their actions will have a bigger impact than being grateful for a thing
- Bringing attention to positive surprises that don’t happen every day can have a big impact
- Vary your gratitude practice. If it becomes stale or boring the benefits you get from the practice will dwindle. What that means is that you should vary what you’re grateful for (people, events, experiences, etc), how often you are grateful (daily, weekly, monthly), and even how you express gratitude
- Keep in mind that, according to research, gratitude is most effective when you celebrate yourself without focusing on how much better off you have things than others (2)
Technique 1: Gratitude Journal
Gratitude journaling is probably the most common way that people begin a gratitude practice. On the most basic level, all you have to do is get a journal dedicated to your gratitude practice and then write what you are thankful for on a daily or weekly basis.
A leading psychologist, Dr. Sonjya Lyubomirsky, who has focused on gratitude recommends the following:
Ponder the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night).
One way to do this is to focus on all the things that you know to be true – for example, something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, and your advantages and opportunities (8).
Don’t forget specific individuals who care for you, have made contributions to or sacrifices for you, or somehow touch your life
When it comes to building a gratitude practice in your life, it is important to plan out some easy times that you can practice gratitude in your day-to-day life.
Ultimately, the time of day that you do your gratitude practice doesn’t matter as long as you can develop it into a habit, but try to identify some particular times when you have some headspace and can easily take a moment or two to be thankful.
If you're interested in making this happen, a classic moleskine works really well. Clean and simple. No frills.
Whatever option you choose, make sure it's something you can stick with.
Technique 2: Gratitude Over A Meal
Instead of writing it down, an easy way to bring more gratitude into your life to you can tie your gratitude practice to a meal.
Before you take your first bite of food before a meal, a good practice is to state one thing that you are grateful for. Even if it feels awkward at first (it probably will!), it actually can be a lot of fun. (If you're with others, it creates great topics of conversation and a general positive start to the meal.)
Breakfast is a good time if you want to start off your day on a positive note, lunch is good if you need to press reset in the middle of the day. and dinner is good if you want to reflect on the day and end on a more peaceful note.
If you typically eat these meals with the same people (e.g., roommate or partner) you can do the practice together. This helps you remember to do the practice and makes the experience more fun and social.
Technique 3: Hand-Written Letters
When is the last time you got a hand-written letter in the mail thanking you for something you did? It feels amazing to receive a handwritten letter, but what's crazy is that the act of writing a letter gratitude has some serious psychological power.
Of all gratitude practices, this one is the most challenging because it takes the most time and effort, but it’s also potentially the most rewarding.
That’s because writing a letter forces you into a deeper level of thought regarding what exactly you are grateful for.
Jimmy Fallon loves gratitude letters
To write a gratitude letter, start with the simple exercise of choosing someone you are grateful for. Then, pick something – whether big or little, simple or complex – that you are thankful for – and write them a little note.
And if you want to maximize the impact of this process, hand deliver the letter.
The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, found that hand delivering letters of gratitude was the single most impactful gratitude practice they could design. The positive feelings felt by people who delivered the letters lasted even up to a month afterwards.
What's amazing is you don’t even have to send the letter to see the benefits in your own well-being.
Simply writing out what you are grateful for will improve your happiness.
And that's all you really need to know to start practicing gratitude!
To kick it off, why not give it a shot now?
Take 15 seconds right now and write something down that you're grateful for. While you do this, try and actually feel the emotions you feel around the person you're grateful for, or how you felt when you experienced the moment you were grateful for.
Taking a moment to recognize and savor those emotions is one of the most important parts of gratitude.
Then do it again tomorrow.