Keys to Happiness: Gratitude

How to Develop the Habit

Anxiety has become the most prevalent mental health condition in the United States today, a fact that should come as no surprise. We live in a climate of fear-mongering. We are inundated with negative news round the clock and it seems the more bizarre or bloody the story the more the media focuses on it. Currently we have the added spectacle of  political campaigns where our “leaders” display appallingly bad behavior while each endeavors to convince us he or she is the one who can save us from collective doom. Sigh.

With so much negativity it is easy to forget there is good in the world.  How do we fight back against this climate of fear? By practicing gratitude.

Benefits of Gratitude

  • Gratitude makes us happier as we focus on the good things in our lives–what’s going right.
  • Gratitude provides resiliency in times of stressful life events or trauma.
  • Gratitude improves social connections. Grateful people are more attuned to others and the world outside themselves.
  • Gratitude is beneficial to our health. The practice of gratitude results in lower blood pressure, improved sleep quality and stronger immune system.
  • Gratitude strengthens our relationships. When we see how we’ve been helped and affirmed by others we are more likely to pay it forward.

Gratitude is not denial. Yes, bad things happen and we are informed of them instantly. Frequently we watch them happening thanks to social media and ever-present cameras but it is important to remember the events reported are exceptions—not the norm. Otherwise they wouldn’t be newsworthy. Here’s some good news:  Gratitude is a psychological habit that can be developed with practice.

How to Develop the Habit of Being Grateful

1  Keep a gratitude journal

At the end of each day, write down 2 or 3 good things that happened to you that day. It does not have to be anything major (unless something truly great occurred.) Think about how each event made you feel and who or what was responsible for it. The goal is learning to pay closer attention to the small things that make life worthwhile.

2. Write a gratitude letter

Is there someone who made a difference in your life that you have not thanked? A teacher, a co-worker, a neighbor? Write a letter expressing your appreciation and deliver it, preferably in person.

3. Fill the well

We don’t miss the water until the well runs dry. Likewise, it’s easy to take people we care about for granted. Think about someone special and how they enrich your life. Then think about what your life would have been like without them in it.  Let them know now how much you value and appreciate them.

4. One thing at a time

Multi-tasking is seen as a virtue but it’s not. It robs us of fully experiencing our lives. Try doing one thing at a time like really focusing on the preparation and taste of good food. Or taking a walk outside (sans headphones) and looking for things you haven’t noticed before—colors, smells, sounds and sights. I’m betting you’ll be surprised at what you’ve been missing. Savor the sensory experiences that bring pleasure.

5.  Enjoy compliments

Imagine someone gave you a tiny, beautifully wrapped gift. Would you reject it? Most likely not–so why do we do that when we are given compliments? Here’s an example:

Giver: “I liked the way you did that.”

You: “Oh, anyone could have done that.”

Next time, simply say, “Thank you” and enjoy the gift. All day.

6.  Death and taxes

The adage that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes should serve as a reminder that your time on earth is limited. On the positive side, if we didn’t know we were going to die we wouldn’t value life as much as we do. Feeling grateful counters negative emotions such as envy, resentment or regret and keeps us focused on the good things in life. (Still working on a positive side for taxes. If you have any ideas, will you share them, please?)

7. Practice self-care.

Create regular space in your life for activities you enjoy. Schedule it on your calendar and set a reminder on your phone. Treat it as if it is the most important appointment you have that day. Because it is.

Gratitude has become the subject of serious scientific research. Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at University of California Davis, is a leading expert on the benefits of being grateful. But all evidence points to the fact  our grandparents were right all along—counting your blessings is good for you.

For more on Dr. Emmons work and other ideas on ways to practice gratitude, see www.greatergoodscience.org.

What are you most grateful for?

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