Want to Be Happier? Practice Gratitude!
Give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way
~Native American saying
I love Thanksgiving and always have. To me, it’s time spent with family, sharing food and creating memories. The ideal Thanksgiving would be spent with my sister and her daughters and their families. The reality is it’s typically just my immediate family because our closest relatives are about 10 hours away and Fridays are often back-to-work days for my husband. This year, with one son stationed in Hawaii and the other unable to get home from college because of a work schedule, it will be just my husband and I.
Thanksgiving is also the requisite day when we give thanks for all that we have. But why keep it at just one day?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gratitude.
As much as I might whine and complain about my house that I dislike so much (too many negative emotions associated with it – long story), I’m grateful not to be out on the street or sleeping on a relative’s couch and I don't have to worry about food insecurity. I think of my neighbor who is my age and struggles with depression and health challenges and I’m thankful because I have only minor ailments and insurance to cover anything else.
Like many people nowadays, money hasn’t been exactly free flowing for a couple of years and it’s been tighter at some times than at others. So when a small windfall would come in – a refund for a forgotten bill that was overpaid or a little bonus with a paycheck – I would send up a silent prayer of thanks because invariably these gifts would show up just when I needed them. Sure, easy come and easy go. But I was ever so grateful to see them come just in the nick of time.
I read an interesting article in American Profile magazine Nov. 20, one that got me seriously thinking about gratitude. In 2007, John Kralik had a particularly bad year. On New Year’s Day the following year, he decided to focus on the good things and people in his life. And so in 2008 he wrote a thank you note each day to someone – a family member, a co-worker, a stranger – whose path crossed his. These daily notes changed his life, taking the focus off himself and putting it on the blessings in his life. In the end, he began to reap benefits he hadn’t even considered would happen.
For the past several years I’ve been working on my “gratitude attitude.” At times this has been quite a struggle because my husband tends to be cynical and negative. Believe me when I say it ain’t easy living with someone who too often doesn’t have anything positive to say about most things. It can be like a contagious disease one must guard against. I dare not allow myself to be sucked down that path of negative thoughts because of my own propensity to depression. It’s just too hard to climb out of that hole.
This is something Rabbi Henry Glazer, author of “I thank, therefore I am: Gateways to gratefulness” mentioned in this same article. “(Gratitude) can be hard to master in a world obsessed with tragic events and negative messages.”
How often do you express gratitude?
Practicing gratitude can increase our happiness
There have been a number of studies in recent years on the intersection of gratitude and happiness, including those by Robert Emmons and Richard McCullough. Their landmark study disproved the notion that we all have a “set-point” level of happiness that cannot be changed.
For 10 years, beginning in the late 1980s, Emmons’ research had focused on happiness and goal strivings. Then in 1998 he attended a conference on what were considered the “sources of human strength” – wisdom, spirituality, humility, hope, love and gratitude. In what he calls a “serendipitous” moment, he was assigned gratitude because his chosen topic – humility – had already been taken.
The conference was the beginning of his research on gratitude and he found it to be “a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a crucial role in human happiness.” He and McCullough began a series of experiments and found there are a number of measurable psychological, interpersonal and physical benefits stemming from the regular engagement of practicing gratitude. Their results found that some people’s lives were transformed by this practice while others reported them as being measurably happier and more pleasant to be around.
Emmons relayed their findings in “thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier” and opens it with experimental evidence showing how gratefulness can increase happiness by 25 percent.
Tips on practicing gratefulness
Don't know how to practice gratefulness? Try one of these ideas below.
- Try journaling. One of the most commonly suggested ways to start practicing gratefulness is to begin a daily gratitude journal. Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance, says each day she writes five things she can be grateful for that day. Her gratitude ranges from “amazing things” to “simple joys.” On rough days all she can muster is gratitude for what she calls “the basics” – her health, her family, her home, etc.
- Send thank you notes. You can take your cue from John Kralik and send handwritten notes to people. Putting them in writing is better than a verbal “thank you” because it allows the person to share it with others or tuck it away in a book to be reread at a later time. And make it a note via snail mail rather than email; it’s much more personal and more likely to be saved.
- Think small. Don’t wait for the big-ticket items such as winning the lottery that may never happen. Be grateful for the seemingly inconsequential things in your life – the sun shining through the trees, the turtle you saw on the side of the road, the sweet kiss from your toddler.
- Meditate. Meditation can open your mind to new ways of looking at the world and has many other benefits such as decreased moodiness and increased happiness. That can lead to increased gratefulness.
- Practice mindfulness. Staying in the moment makes it more likely for us to recognize when an opportunity to practice gratitude has presented itself.
- Feel the appreciation first. Focusing on the specifics of what you are grateful for deepens your sincerity and makes your gratitude more authentic rather than just lip service.
The next step?
About a year ago, I bought Attitudes of gratitude: How to give and receive joy every day of your life. That has helped me learn more about the concept of gratitude and become more aware of my blessings. But I've come to realize that while I do a decent job of telling others I appreciate them I have trouble accepting gratitude from others. Something to explore as I think about my goals for the coming year and how I want to live my life.
Another hub on gratitude and blessings
My sister and fellow hubber Denise Handlon also wrote a hub on gratitude. You can read it here
Share your experiences
What are you grateful for? How do you practice gratefulness? Do you journal? Do you regularly send up a quick, silent (or not so silent) prayer of thanks for something good that has happened?
Share your experiences in the comments section below.