Over the last ten years or so, much research has been done in the field of Positive Psychology, which investigates the ways in which positive thinking can affect our health, relationships, and
Gratitude, which is the quality of being thankful or appreciative, has been of particular interest to psychologists and social scientists, and what they have found may have you running to the nearest stationary store to pick up a box of thank-you cards!
Studies have shown that just four weeks of a daily gratitude practice can make us healthier and
happier. Harvard Health (November 2011) reported that experiencing or expressing gratitude regularly can result in people feeling more positive emotions, finding greater enjoyment in life experiences, and facing adversity with more resilience. And, according to a report out of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, gratitude can help free us from the dark trap of toxic emotions such as envy and resentment, and can also increase our feelings of self-worth.
When we spend a few moments each day thinking about the people or things for which we are grateful, we create shifts in our brain chemistry, improving the state of our mental health. Being appreciative also improves our physical wellbeing, studies say, because we are more inclined to take care of ourselves by exercising and eating nutritious food if we are feeling grateful for our health; we also sleep better, experience reduced blood pressure, and have lower incidences of depression and anxiety.
Gratitude is a practice—it is a quality which must be cultivated with intention over time. Spending a few minutes each day thinking, praying, meditating, journalling, or speaking to loved ones in an appreciative tone, leads to significant increases in how people rate their overall levels of happiness in life.
We can improve our relationships by thanking those we love when we notice them doing something kind; we can increase both the happiness and productivity of our employees by letting them know that we recognize and appreciate their efforts; and we can pull ourselves out of emotional slumps, and sometimes even depression, by taking stock of even the smallest of blessings.
Here are a few simple ways to incorporate the practice of gratitude into your wellness plan:
- Each day when you wake up, before even speaking or checking your phone, bring to mind
someone or something you feel thankful for. Take a few breaths with your eyes closed, allowing the feeling of gratitude to arise;
- Be increasingly mindful of those around you, and take note when you see or hear someone doing something kind or generous. Make someone’s day by specifically thanking them;
- Reach out to loved ones, either with a card, email, or phone call, and let them know that you care and appreciate having them in your life;
- Find a journal that you can use exclusively as a gratitude log (I really like the “Five Minute Journal”, which prompts your daily reflections in accordance with established Positive Psychology research.) At the start or end of each day, write a small entry noting something specific that you feel thankful for;
- Consider making a 365 Days of Gratitude jar, and invite your loved ones to participate. Using a fishbowl or decorative container, write one thing you are grateful for each day on a small piece of paper, fold it, and place it in the jar. At the end of the year, as a way of looking back, read through your notes and meditate upon those blessings;
- If possible, give yourself some time to be alone in nature for Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing.) Whether sitting still or walking slowly and mindfully, be silent and open. Notice the various sounds and smells, and breathe in the abundance of beauty that surrounds you;
- Making space for gratitude also means noticing when we are feeding the negative headspace. Refrain from complaining as a way to fill up conversational space. Notice when you have the urge to whine, and instead try to express your thoughts as observations rather than negative judgments. I’ve had a teacher refer to complaining as “leaking energy” best put to use elsewhere;
- Pay it forward! When you feel grateful for something, allow yourself to extend the feeling outward in a gesture of benevolence. Buy a coffee for the person behind you in line; send flowers to someone you love when it’s not expected; buy a sandwich for a homeless person on the street; give up your seat on the subway to someone who looks like they may need it more than you; allow the person behind you in line to go first.
Reframing your mindset to one of gratitude is a simple but profound way to improve your health,
wellbeing, and relationships. Notice when you may be sliding into spiral of self-pity, self-criticism, or harsh judgment, or of when you are focussing primarily on the negative things that happen in your day, and spend a few minutes recounting the things you truly appreciate: the blue sky, the great parking spot, the money to buy your groceries, the hug of a loved one. Not only will this serve to strengthen your social bonds and relationships (and make you more likeable!) but you will be become healthier and happier in the process.