Why Be Thankful? How To Live Better...With Gratitude.
When the world around us feels so uncertain, it can be hard to feel thankful for anything.
As the last year has shown us, it’s most obvious when our routines are somewhat ‘simplified.’
You may have felt limited to the basic ingredients of a normally rich, fulfilling life: to groceries, exercise, or work—with limits on the things that excite you—parties with friends, exploring new countries, dining out or meeting new people.
Enter gratitude. We hear a lot about it in the media—the idea that if we say “thank you” more, we’ll instantly live richer, more rewarding, meaningful lives.
That may not be quite accurate, but it can be quite powerful.
In this article, we’ll dig a little deeper into the psychology of gratitude. We’ll explore whether science supports all the hype, and show you how to be thankful for the little things in your life to experience its benefits for yourself.
What Is Gratitude in Psychology?
Gratitude is more than giving thanks, and it’s an essential ingredient for happiness.
Scientifically, it’s considered the outcome of two cognitions (McCullough et al., 2002; Polak & McCullough, 2006):
The acknowledgment that we’ve obtained something positive, and
That someone else (or something else) is responsible for it.
In more everyday language, leading positive psychologist Robert Emmons puts it beautifully (Emmons, 2010):
“Gratitude is the affirmation of goodness…We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Practicing gratitude has been shown to amplify the positive emotions we experience, contribute to stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and increase our compassionate, forgiving behaviors; so it’s easy to see why it’s so talked about.
But before we continue, let’s look at what gratitude isn’t.
...And Here’s What It Isn’t
In a word:limited.
There’s plenty of debate about the nature of certain psychological concepts—take willpower, for example. Some believe in ego depletion (that self-determination is a finite resource) and others disagree. Some research even suggests that willpower depends on those beliefs...but that’s a story for another day.
Gratitude, as relationships researcher Kathy Gottman puts it, is more like happiness. It’s abundant in all of us.
We may not have big-ticket items to be grateful for, or a laundry list of medals, but humans are multi-faceted creatures with many different ‘selves.’
From our faith, or our families, and even our failures and weaknesses, there are infinite little things about our lives to give thanks for—it’s just a matter of noticing them.
Here’s why it’s worth it.
How Being Thankful Makes a Difference
Whether you’re appreciating your morning coffee or smiling at someone who gave you their seat, we’ve already seen how practicing gratitude can improve your wellbeing in a host of ways.
In addition to the benefits already mentioned, here’s a further sample of the many advantages of gratitude. According to researchers:
People with higher levels of gratitude sleep better, and for longer. Per studies by Wood and colleagues, it’s because gratitude is linked to more positive (and fewer negative) pre-sleep thoughts (Wood et al., 2016)
Gratitude helps us be less materialistic, shifting our attention toward others rather than dissatisfaction, envy, and ‘things’ (Polak & McCullough, 2006)
Practicing gratitude can boost our self-esteem (Rash et al., 2011)
It can enhance our relationships. By driving us to act in more prosocial ways, helping us build trust, and improving our communication, gratitude helps us foster strong social support networks (Ma et al., 2017)
Gratitude is negatively associated with anxiety and depression, partly because being thankful makes us focus on positive emotions and thoughts, rather than anxious ones (Korb, 2012), and
Experiencing thankfulness may make us more optimistic while increasing our satisfaction and positive feelings (Lashani et al., 2012).
Gratitude interventions—or practices—are some of the simplest exercises around. We’ll show you four ways to experience more thankfulness in your everyday life so that you can tap into its benefits.
4 Ways To Live More Gratefully
2 exercises that have been shown to increase happiness for at least a month (and up to six!) are outlined in Martin Seligman’s positive psychology Empirical Validation of Interventions (Seligman et al., 2005).
To start experiencing more gratitude in your life, try these:
Play Three Good Things In Life: This simple exercise involves coming up with three positive things that have happened to you each day. It doesn’t matter whether they’re big like a lottery win or small like a smile on the subway, but you’ll get the best results from playing Three Good Things In Life regularly. For each positive thing you think of, try to explain how it came about. Who, or what was responsible for the goodness in your day?
Make a Gratitude Visit (or email!). There’s a missed thank-you in everyone’s life: that person or something that showed us special kindness. Write that person a letter of gratitude, then deliver it to them face-to-face if you can. Email it if you can’t—no excuses!
Another fantastic exercise comes from happiness specialist Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project.” She recommends (Rubin, 2009):
Creating gratitude reminders, mental cues, or prompts to inspire moments of thankfulness throughout your day. When you build these reminders into your daily routine, like dressing, you’ll be triggered to stop for a moment and think about the things, people, and experiences that you’re thankful for.
Lastly, you may have noticed that the first two activities had a positive impact for only a limited time. If you’re finding it hard to “keep it fresh” with new things to be grateful for, try:
Checking In Daily. Make one of your prompts a reminder to check in on the last 24 hours. By training your brain to think of novel, out-of-the-box things to be grateful for, you’ll lay the (cerebral!) building blocks for a more grateful mindset (Kini et al., 2016). It’s scientific!
Over To You
With all the emotional, prosocial, and neuroscientific benefits of regular gratitude practice, there’s very little reason not to give it a go.
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
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Ma, L. K., Tunney, R. J., & Ferguson, E. (2017). Does gratitude enhance prosociality?: A meta-analytic review.Psychological Bulletin,143(6), 601.
McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002). The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,82(1), 112.
Polak, E., & McCullough, M. (2006). Is gratitude an alternative to materialism?Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 343–360.
Rash, J. A., Matsuba, M. K., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Gratitude and well‐being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention?Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 350-369.
Rubin, G. (2009).The Happiness Project. New York: HarperCollins.
Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: The benefits of appreciation.Psychiatry (Edgmont),7(11), 18-22.
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions.American Psychologist, 60, 410.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(1), 43-48.
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