Living your life with gratitude means choosing to focus your time and attention on what you appreciate. When life’s stressors confront us, we always tend to look at the negatives and forget the positives. Having some gratitude during these tough times can help us view situations with a more balanced outlook on life.
Recent studies show that being grateful can really benefit us both physiologically and psychologically. A study by Zahn etal examined the blood flow in various brain regions of participants who were asked to recall experiences or feelings related to gratefulness. A MRI scan revealed that participants who demonstrated more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This area of the brain controls sleep and stress and when this area is activated you experience improved sleeping patterns and reduced stress levels, which can be helpful when you have anxiety or depression.
Research by Wong (2016) found there were psychological benefits of having gratitude. The study was conducted on 3 groups of psychotherapy clients where the first group received psychotherapy, the second group received psychotherapy with an additional task of expressive writing and the third group received psychotherapy and practiced gratitude writing. Participants in the gratitude group wrote letters expressing gratitude to others, whereas those in the expressive writing group wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences. Results from the research found that the group who did the gratitude writing reported significantly better mental health than those in the expressive and control groups, whereas those in the expressive and control conditions did not differ significantly. What is also interesting about the study is only a small percentage of the group actually posted their letters of gratitude to people, and the people who didn’t post their letters still reported improvements with their mental wellbeing.
How to make gratitude a part of your life
The most popular and effective way (according to research) to practice gratitude is having a gratitude journal. Just get yourself a journal and write down 5 things you are grateful for. It is nice to do this each night as a way of reminding us about the positive aspects of the day. You don’t have to do this everyday but it is beneficial to do on a regular basis.
Another good way to help us be grateful is to place items that remind us of being grateful around the home. These can be things such as photos, words, or object that signify something we are grateful for.
You can also use gratitude as a tool to help with unhelpful thoughts. Everytime you have an unhelpful thought; think of something you are grateful for. By remembering the positives this will help take away some of your focus from the negative and unhelpful thoughts to give you a more balanced perspective.
Simple starting tips
1. Keep your gratitude journal in a spot that you will see regularly each day. Your nightstand is a good spot where you will see it first thing when you wake up and last thing when you go down for bed.
2. You don’t have to come up with the “right” answers. Start by keeping things simple and write anything that comes to mind. You can be thankful for things like a meal you just ate, a movie you just watched or a friend you spent time with.
3. Develop consistency. Try to make it a habit to take some time regularly to slow down and just engage in reflecting about the things you are thankful for. Spending as little as five minutes a day has been shown to be effective. If you miss a day, it’s totally fine.
Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley interviewed Emmons to ask for tips on
how to get the most out of your gratitude journal
1. Don’t just go through the motions. It’s important to be intentional on why you are doing this exercise. Instead of doing this because someone is telling you to, think about what you are hoping to gain out of this exercise. Take the time to acknowledge you are doing this because cultivating more happiness in your life is important to you. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
2. Go for depth over breadth. After you’ve developed a gratitude journaling habit, it will serve you well to become more specific with the things you are thankful for. Being able to express one thing you are deeply thankful for is so much more meaningful than being thankful for a bunch of general superficial things.
3. Get personal. Taking time to focus on people you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things that you are grateful for.
4. Try subtraction, not just addition. If you are having trouble coming up with things you are thankful for, one simple trick to spur up some gratitude is to start thinking about how your life would be if you didn’t have some of the things that you have now.
5. Savor surprises. Keep track of pleasant or unexpected surprises as these are great things to reflect on when you have a chance. You may find reflecting on these moments can bring up stronger feelings of gratitude.
Y. Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, Sydney McInnis, Paul Toth & Lynn Gilman(2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332
Zahn, Roland & Moll, Jorge & Paiva, Mirella & Garrido, Griselda & Krueger, Frank & Huey, Edward & Grafman, Jordan. (2008). The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence from Functional MRI. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991). 19. 276-83. 10.1093/cercor/bhn080