Gratitude does not come easily to me. I’m a bit of a gratitude curmudgeon, a little resentful of having to dutifully cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” But after doing more reading about what gratitude actually is, and especially after reading Brene Brown’s groundbreaking research on gratitude, I’ve turned a corner. Basically, Brown found that “It’s not joy that makes us grateful; it’s gratitude that makes us joyful.”
I’m grateful for the shift., because truth be told, joy felt as elusive as gratitude felt contrived. But Brown has made me realize that gratitude is not so much a perfunctory response to the day’s blessings, but actually the reverse—it’s the field in which the day’s blessings can unfold. Gratitude precedes joy. And not being grateful was in fact a way to armor myself against the vulnerability that gratitude demands. Gratitude is an unguarded invitation for joy to enter—it’s an appreciation for all that one has, as well as the simultaneous realization of its impermanence.
Once you overcome your gratitude grudge, the way is clear for all kinds of positive health benefits to occur. Namely, a growing body of research spearheaded by University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons supports the link between gratitude and greater happiness. In a nutshell, gratitude helps people relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. For these kinds of results though, it’s not enough to wing gratitude, allowing a fleeting thought of appreciation as you stand in the checkout line at the supermarket. You have to be more proactive about gratitude, transforming it into a practice as opposed to merely a good intention.
In a recent study conducted by Emmons, he asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. According to a Harvard Health report, one group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them from a neutral perspective. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Here’s the surprising kicker—they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Once we create, establish, and maintain the gratitude circuitry in our brains, we start to feel more worthy—and act that way too. Emmons’ work suggests that grateful people take better care of themselves. And watch out for gratitude creep: Gratitude helps us manage stress better and become more optimistic. Optimism, in turn, is a marker for a healthier immune system.
With Thanksgiving imminent, we have plenty of upcoming opportunities to contemplate what we are thankful for. But then it’s easy for all that thankfulness to dissipate on the tail of Black Friday and beyond. So how do you make gratitude part of your everyday experience?
Here are some ways, courtesy of Harvard Health, to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.
Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.
Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.
Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings — reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number — such as three to five things — that you will identify each week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.
Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).