It was almost the end of a 90 minute walk and my friend and I were soaked and cold with one more hill to climb before home to hot showers. I was feeling quite irritable with the situation when my friend commented “Isn’t it amazing that we can ask our bodies to go walking and our bodies respond?”
Although at other times such a comment may have elicited other responses from me, I felt my irritability vanish and a sense of gratefulness arise as I thought of the people I knew whose bodies wouldn’t be so obliging.
In fact gratitude, defined by the foremost researcher on the topic Robert Emmons as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life”, is increasingly shown in studies to be linked with a whole raft of benefits from feeling more satisfied with life generally to having fewer physical symptoms of illness.
Studies show that people who practice gratitude experience more positive emotion and report feeling more connected to others, even experiencing better sleep! It has been suggested that gratitude helps people cope with disaster and loss and may offer protection against psychiatric disorders.
Given the number of studies pointing towards the positive effects of adopting an “attitude of gratitude” why don’t we do this more often?
According to scholars (e.g., Sonya Lyubomirsky) in the field, there are a number of thoughts that get in the way of being grateful.
- seeing yourself as a victim (he did this to me and its unfair)
- having difficulty accepting your shortcomings
- an attitude of entitlement (I deserve it no matter what)
- high levels of envy and resentment (why do they get more money for doing less work)
- overemphasizing material values (if only I could afford an iphone)
In his 2007 book, “Thanks!” Robert Emmons provides tips for the best ways to foster gratitude. Some of these are
- remember the difficult times in your life and then look to see where you are now. Who helped you through? What have you learned since those times? In what ways can you see benefit in your experience?
- Remember that being grateful doesn’t have to be about only big events in your life – it can be as simple as being grateful for the warmth of your clothes or having a simple nourishing meal on a cold night – use the 5 senses as a guide if you get stuck or things that you would usually take for granted
- Often we don’t realize the power of our language in working for/against a grateful stance in life. Do you find that you notice the small pleasantries or do you complain to others every chance you get?
One of the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy is that our moods change when we change our behaviour. Sometime later your mood will catch up if you start doing things differently. In practice this means going to the gym when we don’t feel like it, and in the case of gratitude maybe practicing gratitude when we don’t feel like it.
Keep the emotions fresh – try to think of new things to be grateful for each day otherwise you’ll find that this practice turns into a boring and uninspiring routine.
In her book “The How of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky tells readers why being grateful helps:
- it promotes savouring of life experiences (being in the moment)
- it boosts self worth and self esteem – by getting you to focus on how much you have accomplished, and how much others have helped
- it helps you cope with stress and trauma and you reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences. It seems people instinctively express gratitude when confronted with adversity.
- it encourages moral behaviour – grateful people are more likely to help others and less likely to be materialistic – which in these recession times is surely going to be a bonus!
- Gratitude can help build social bonds, strengthen existing ones and nurture new ones – several studies have shown feeling of greater connectedness – which in turn is something to be grateful for. Grateful people have been shown to be more positive and better liked.
- it inhibits comparison with others – so you’re less likely to envy the Joneses.
- the practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may diminish anger, bitterness and greed. This theory that positive emotions can “undo” negative emotions has promising research behind it.
- helps reduce the human tencency to adapt to new circumstances. We adjust rapidly to new circumstances/events which is adaptive when the event is unpleasant (think being paralysed) but not when new event is positive (think winning lotto).
How do you practice?
Ponder 3 to 5 things which you are currently grateful for from little things (you sat out in the sun for 5 minutes and enjoyed the time to yourself) to much bigger things (you have a steady job that pays the bills and allows you a lot of freedom in life).
Do this once a week for happiness boosting effects (lab studies show that this timing is better than every day).