Practicing Gratitude

Happiness is something that everyone strives to achieve, even if its definition is vague or person-dependent.  The paths to achieving happiness are equally varied.  For some people, happiness is being surrounded by loving friends and family.  To others, it’s financial independence, experiencing a big belly laugh, or eating a delicious piece of cake.  While the specifics may vary from person to person, scientists have recently begun to converge on the idea that expressing gratitude for the good things in one’s life is one of the most important ways to cultivate happiness.  Not only does practicing gratitude lead to increases in subjective reports of happiness, it is also known to improve sleep, boost the immune system, increase optimism, and generally foster positive emotions such as overall feelings of well-being and satisfaction with one’s life.

Some of us may struggle to identify anything to feel grateful for at times, while others may feel that they are already aware of the blessings in their life and that they do not need to explicitly incorporate this practice into their routine.  However, there is a difference between a general feeling of thankfulness (e.g., “I’m grateful for my friends and family”) and a daily gratitude practice.  The most important differences are newness and specificity.  For example, instead of recycling a cliché day after day, such as feeling grateful for friends and family, you may instead think, “I’m grateful for the funny meme my friend sent me today” or “I’m grateful that my daughter packed her own lunch today.”  Things to be grateful for can come in all sizes; it can be as big as a promotion at work or as small as spotting a pretty caterpillar on the sidewalk.  It may even be possible to find the good within the bad (e.g., “I’m grateful that I had a Band-Aid in my purse to use after I fell and scraped my knee”).  It is by noticing the good things around us and elevating them to conscious awareness that we can begin to realize how full our lives already are.

It is no accident that this idea is codified with dynamic language (i.e., “practicing gratitude”) rather than static language (i.e., “be grateful”).  To reap the benefits of this practice, it is not something that can be done sparsely or intermittently, nor is it a passive experience.  To truly practice gratitude, one must be mindful of the positive things in his/her life and honor them on a frequent basis.  There are many ways to do this.  For example, you may wish to get in the habit of writing down three things that you are grateful for each day.  If you are someone who struggles to find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, starting your day with a gratitude list may help set a positive tone for the day.  If you are someone who has a hard time getting to sleep because your brain is busy ruminating about stressors or other negative thoughts, it may be more helpful to carve out some time before bed to identify what you are grateful for that day.  If you do not want to write in a journal, you may wish to write your gratitudes down on individual slips of paper, put them in a jar, and pull them out at various times if you are in need of a happiness boost.  If you want your practice to be more interactive, you can reach out to the people in your life that you would like to thank, or simply choose a partner to “trade” gratitudes with each day.

Practicing gratitude is not a panacea; it is not a magic cure for depression nor does it negate the very real stressors and traumas of everyday life.  However, incorporating a gratitude practice into your daily routine may help to somewhat counteract the negatives.  Rewiring the brain to focus on what one has rather than what one lacks will ultimately help promote more positive emotions and can increase happiness in just a few weeks.

Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist