Over the past few years, research has proven what we have known for a while, that people who don’t take things for granted but consciously express gratitude tend to be happier and less depressed. Although simple, gratitude is such a highly powerful technique that I include it as one of the main steps in my Intentional Happiness Circle.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Robert Emmons, is the world’s leading expert on gratitude. From his research he found that gratitude has 4 important impacts on our happiness.
Gratitude increases our positive emotionsGratitude improves our mood and increases feelings of joy and happiness.
Gratitude decreases feelings of depressionBy keeping a gratitude journal, we shift our focus from negative emotions to positive ones. And when we focus on the positive it is harder to ruminate on the negative feelings. It also blocks feelings such as envy, jealousy and resentment.
Gratitude improves our relationshipsReflecting on the people in our lives and sharing with them our gratitude for them, strengthens our relationships.
Gratitude increases our resilienceBy gaining perspective and actively training our brains to see positives, we build resilience to help us bounce back in harder times.
“It’s not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy.”
Not Just For Happy People
Research is also showing us that gratitude not only works for those feeling positive but also for those struggling with their emotional wellbeing.
A study by Wong et al 2015 found that gratitude is a tool that complements counselling, that isn’t too taxing yet yields a high result. In their study of 300 students accessing the student counselling service, they split them into 3 groups. The first group were given counselling, the second counselling and asked to write gratitude letters once a week for 3 weeks and the last group received counselling and were asked to write down their negative thoughts and feelings. The second group that practised gratitude in addition to their counselling reported the most improvement in their mental health.
Long Lasting Effects
Group 2 from the student research study reported significantly better mental health 4 weeks and 12 weeks after the study finished. So not only gratitude increases our happiness, it also has a long-lasting effect.
Gratitude Changes Your Brain
Research has found that the regular practice of gratitude changes the medial prefrontal cortex. Creating a habit of thinking of the positives each day creates strong neural pathways that train our brain to react more strongly to the experience of gratitude and over time to look for those aspects in our life to be grateful for.
Write it Down
Of course consciously thinking of what we are grateful for helps us feel better, however there is so much evidence that physically writing down what we are grateful for deepens the impact on our happiness. When we express our gratitude through writing we are telling our brain that this information is very important and therefore we take our gratitude practice to a deeper level, reinforcing what we are grateful for.
5 Tips to get started
- 1. Set aside a specific time when you will write
- 2. Gather your materials together in one place (I keep my notebook and pen by my bed).
- 3. Write regularly. It can be every day or 1-3 times per week.
- 4. If you feel you are repeating the same thing, try looking at different details.
- 5. Go as detailed and deep as you can. Check out my prompt questions below for inspiration.
The simplest and easiest way to create a gratitude practice is to keep a journal. You can write on paper, in a notebook or buy a specific gratitude journal. Right now I have a cute notebook and a pen that says ‘Make Today Awesome’ on it. Try writing down 3 things you are grateful for, either today or in general. Research by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania found that completing this exercise every day for one week led to an increase in happiness that lasted for 6 months! That is because it helps you to remember and appreciate good things and teaches you to notice and savor positive events.
Another way to practice gratitude and is great if you are a visual person like me, is to make a gratitude jar. Find a jar and feel free to decorate it if you wish. Have a small stack of small pieces of paper and a pen. Write your daily gratitude, fold up the paper and pop it in the jar. It’s a visual reminder of all you have in your life and on harder days, you can dip into the jar and reread your notes. A jar is also a great way to introduce kids to the concept of gratitude. I made one with my 5 year old son. He stuck stickers on the jar and each day he draws a picture on some paper and I write a note on the back.
6 Gratitude Prompt Questions
You may find these helpful as you begin your gratitude practice or to deepen your practice.
- 1. What is the best thing that happened today?
- 2. What relationships am I grateful for? Or Who has shown up for me lately?
- 3. What opportunity, big or small, has come my way?
- 4. What is something enjoyable I get to experience every day that I have come to take for granted?
- 5. What aspects of my home or city am I grateful for?
- 6. What made me smile or laugh today?
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