Thanksgiving is right around the corner, the holiday that has its origin in the Puritan’s tradition of giving thanks for a good harvest. The Puritans weren’t the first in this regard. Many religious and societal traditions are based in the concept of gratitude. What all these traditions may or may not have known is that recent scientific studies point to a direct link between gratitude and a deep satisfaction with life. Not only is it good to give thanks, it is good for you to do so!
In a study at the University of California at Davis, Professor Robert Emmons came up with some very interesting and illuminating results from his research project on gratitude and thankfulness. Professor Emmons found that people who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. In addition, participants who kept the journals were more likely to make progress towards their personal goals in life.
The study also notes that people with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others. Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of wealthy persons; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.
If the practice of gratitude is so beneficial to our overall well-being, how can we learn to cultivate it more? My gut feeling is that the type of gratitude we normally experience when we see others that are less fortunate than ourselves is not enough. If it were, we would all be much happier as we are surrounded by evidence of the suffering of so many people in the world today. It seems that we need to look directly at our own lives in order to be truly grateful and thereby reap the benefits of gratitude.
The concept of gratitude is directly related to the idea of the power of positive thinking. Concentrating on what we do have versus what we don’t have seems to be the key. Reminding ourselves on a daily basis of all the things that come our way keeps us grounded in gratitude instead of want. At any given moment during the day we can stop in the moment and be thankful. Keeping a record of these moments, journaling, is what Professor Emmons recommends. When life becomes overwhelming we can look back at our musings and see just how lucky we really are.
Indeed, further results of the University of California’s study show that a daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
As we are told not to sweat the small things so too can we be very grateful for the little joys in our lives. I just got back from running to school to drop-off something for my daughter. Upon entering the house, which is warm and toasty compared to the rainy, cold day outside, I was greeted by my three dogs with tons of kisses and love. They now lie by my feet as I type away. The house is peaceful and quiet like my own personal sanctuary. I glance out my windows and see nothing but the foliage that envelops my home. These are the little moments that that we can become attuned to in gratitude. There are hundreds of such moments in any given week if we are mindful of them. They add up and build upon one another to create a more centered, content and positive perspective on life.
Furthermore, the research reports that grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life. Again, my intuition tells me that given the perspective that gratitude gifts us, we are undoubtedly more equipped to handle life’s challenges. One’s attitude can determine how effective one is in coping with what life throws in our direction. Our perspective on life determines our reality. If we approach things with a perspective grounded in say the belief that life is unfair, everything that turns up will look unfair. But as we practice gratitude, we are endowed with its gifts of optimism and the necessary energy required to take on our lives.
How can you start to practice gratitude? Begin with the art of mindfulness, being totally present in the moment. Notice all the little things that surround you, things you might take for granted if you hadn’t stopped to really look. Offer acknowledgement of these small gifts much like my moment in a warm and peaceful home with my dogs. Write them down in a gratitude journal. The little things make up the fabric of our days, our months, and our years. Oftentimes we hardly notice them because we are so caught up in the task of living. As they say, stop and smell the roses.
Stop and consider what you have been given in life. Are you blessed with financial security? Do you have loving children, a supportive family? A nice home? Are you in good health? Do you enjoy your work? Do you have wonderful friends? What does nature give to you? Do you have a supportive and loving mate? Concentrate on what you do have and not what you lack.
Research also tells us that the act of giving back to the world has much the same effect as gratitude. Interestingly enough, Emmons study also found that participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another. The act of gratitude and the act of giving back therefore reinforce each other and lead to the inevitable …more fulfilling, meaningful and happy lives.
These are things that we all know to be true in the abstract and yet we can take them from the abstract into the specifics of our own existence. Start practicing gratitude today. Pull out a notebook and write down just one thing. Commit to adding to this journal everyday. A good time might be before bedtime when you have time to reflect back on your day. Think of all the good things that occurred. Perhaps a brief but meaningful exchange with a child or a friend. Maybe a great cup of coffee. When you put down your pen and paper, you might just go to sleep easier. That’s yet something else for which to be grateful.