A couple weeks ago many of us celebrated Thanksgiving. For most this probably involved a large meal with family and for some included a reflection of the past year and things we have to be thankful for. For most of us, this intentional practice is limited to a single day of the year. But there is a growing body of evidence that there are many benefits to extending this once a year routine (being thankful, not the overeating..) into something more – even a daily habit. Research mainly focuses on various benefits of gratitude. Some people will argue, perhaps correctly, a difference between being thankful and grateful – but the definition of one often includes the other. One definition I like is from an article on Gratitude and Well Being:
“gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation”
(Sansone & Sansone, 2010).
Regardless of an exact definition, gratitude is generally thought of as a positive emotion, in contrast to negative emotions like guilt. Robert Emmons, a prominent gratitude researcher lists the following benefits of gratitude:
Again according to Emmons in an excerpt from an article found on the Positive Psychology website: “In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it not just worth living, but rich in texture and detail”.
There are many emerging theories as to why and how gratitude can have these impacts. There is no doubt a general correlation to stress and negative thoughts in general – when you look for positive things in life you will find them – when you look for negative things you will find those. This doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen – they do and will and we still need to deal with them. We may just be better able to keep them in context – while still remembering the multitude of positive things our lives offer.
The most common practice to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Every day write down at least 1 or more things you were grateful for, thankful for or appreciative of – really anything positive that happened during your day. Emmons encourages people to “establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits and good things you enjoy. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes or valued people in your life”. Another set of instructions (taken from the MRI study) : There are many daily events in our lives, large and small that we might be thankful for. There are many people who affect our lives in a positive way. These occur in various domains, including relationships, work, school, housing, finances, health, and so forth. Think back over today or this past week and write a journal entry about what you are grateful for.” Whether a list or a story works better for you is OK – the main thing is to try and do it daily for at least 3 weeks.
Some entries from my past journaling include: