Each year during Thanksgiving, we are prompted to consider to what in our lives we are grateful. This is an opportunity to reflect inwards and think about the present. We spend so much of our time on this planet thinking about the past and planning for the future, that contemplating our here-and-now blessings takes us out of our daily customs and, perhaps, brings with it a sense of specialness that is often reserved for the holidays.
This tradition of stating in front of our loved ones what we are grateful for is what makes Thanksgiving sentimental, especially before we plough forward into Black Friday and the shopping mayhem that follows and continues through the end of the calendar year.
Giving thanks does not have to be limited to once a year. In fact, many people, especially the religiously affiliated, will say grace before each meal, appreciating the food and the people with whom they get to share their meal before consuming it. But gratitude is not limited to the religious or to meals.
As researchers are discovering, gratitude is a practice that is beneficial in many ways and is recommended as a regular practice for those seeking to enjoy its benefits more than once a year.
In this article, we will explore what these benefits are as described by researchers and how you can incorporate a practice of gratitude should you wish to reap these benefits in your own life.
Gratitude as a subject of scientific research has only been studied since about the year 2000. In that time, however, the evidence has strongly shown that adopting an attitude of gratitude and engaging in exercises that strengthen this sense of appreciation provide ample mental, physical, and social benefits.
In 2016, the Greater Good Science Center conducted a study to examine the benefits of gratitude journaling on university students seeking mental health counseling. Participants were divided into three groups, each of which received psychotherapy services. What differentiated these groups was the following: The first group was asked to write a gratitude letter to someone they knew once weekly over the course of three weeks. The second group was asked to write about their thoughts and feelings related to negative past experiences. The third group was not instructed to write at all.
What researchers discovered was that the group who wrote the gratitude letters showed significant improvements in mental health issues related to depression and anxiety, event four and 12 weeks after the experiment had ended.
What contributed to this significance of gratitude writing? As it turns out, the main finding was that people who engaged in journaling about gratitude used less negative emotion-based words. The shift in focus from toxic emotions like resentment, frustration, and regret occurred simply because these participants were tuned into how other people contributed to their flourishing. This shift took them away from what otherwise might have been ruminative thinking.
As it turns out, gratitude not only improves our mindset, it can boost our self-esteem. This result was found in athletes who practiced gratitude. Researchers believe that focusing on gratitude steers our mind away from social comparisons where we feel inferior to others who are more accomplished and allows us to appreciate them instead.
A study conducted in 2012 found that participants who rated as more grateful experienced fewer physical aches and pains. These individuals were more likely to engage in healthy activities such as a routine exercise regimen and regular medical check-ups. As such, we might conclude that those who engage in gratitude feel more positively about themselves and therefore take better care of their bodies. Their self-care practices, therefore, result in better health.
Another study looked at the relationship between gratitude and sleep. The findings pointed to greater sleep quality and duration for grateful individuals. Due to the more positive mindset of these gratitude practicing folks, they tended to engage in more positive thoughts before bed which helped them attain improved sleep.
The authors of one of the measures of gratitude used in scientific studies, the Gratitude Resentment and Appreciation Test (GRAT), conceptualized gratitude with the following:
(1) Abundance mentality. Rather than feel deprived when someone else has attained their goal, grateful individuals would see others’ success as a joyous occasion and not harbor feelings of envy.
(2) Acknowledge others. When they encounter success, grateful individuals take the time to acknowledge others’ contribution to their accomplishments.
(3) Appreciate small details. While it is easy for us to feel a surge of happiness when we accomplish great feats, grateful people can appreciate the simple aspects of day to day life.
We can hypothesize that anyone who can rejoice in our success, acknowledge us for our contributions and appreciate the small things in life would benefit from stronger social bonds. Let’s see what the research says about this.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky (2011) found that gratitude correlated with decreased aggression towards others. That is, individuals who scored higher on gratitude scales were found to have more empathy towards others and were less likely to seek revenge when something went wrong. This finding has both an emotional benefit in that grateful individuals are harboring less anger towards others. It also demonstrates a social benefit in that they are more likely to reduce interpersonal conflict and experience more social closeness with others.
According to Amin (2014), when we are more grateful, we have more friends and better quality relationships. Algoe, Fredrickson, and Gable (2013) state that when we express our gratitude to others, it deepens our interpersonal connections. And as the saying goes, you reap what you sow. When you build close relationships, you have greater access to social support when you need it, and because of those relationships, you are also less likely to need the support because you experience a decrease in stress and an increase in mood. It is no surprise, then, that gratitude reduces feelings of loneliness (Algoe, 2012).
Ways to Be Grateful
Now that you are aware of the prosperity associated with a gratitude practice, let’s explore how you, too, can can reap the benefits.
According to researcher Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina, gratitude is a three-step process. Step one is to find people with whom we are suitable. Step two is to be reminded of existing social relationships. Step three is maintaining and investing in those relationships by forming bonds with these important individuals. As such, the Find-Remind-Bind theory demonstrates that gratitude is a practice that brings us into connection with other people and is an ongoing exercise that nourishes those interpersonal bonds.
So consider who is in your social circle? How suitable are they to your personality? If you are content with the bonds you have, focus on engaging with those individuals on a deeper level. If, however, you want to increase your circle, find new and more fitting friendships, and feel more connected to others and less lonely, focus on finding the bonds first. Expand your community by joining local chapters of like-minded individuals. Consider neighborhood groups, religious organizations like churches and temples, meditation circles, or volunteer opportunities. You can find out about both leisure and business networking events in your area through sites such as Meetup and Eventbrite. Create a goal and take the necessary steps to see it to fruition.
You can also focus on your inner world, a practice over which you have more control and can engage in more frequently. Here are three ways to practice gratitude:
1. Write a thank you note to someone you appreciate. Simply the act of writing such a letter invokes positive emotions in you, allowing you to reap the benefits whether or not you send it. That said, should you have the opportunity to share your letter with the person to whom you are grateful, this would be an exercise that can allow you to deepen your connection to that individual.
2. Start a gratitude journal. Writing in a notebook daily about what you are thankful for focuses your mind on the positive and sharpens your attention to the small details of life, as mentioned above. This practice can be as short as a couple of minutes of writing, so don’t let time be an excuse. Simply get in the habit of writing down three events from that day that you are grateful for and as a bonus, consider writing your contribution to those events. If you are grateful for someone in your life, reflect on a recent occurrence that sparked this sense of appreciation in you.
3. Practice a loving kindness meditation daily. This type of meditation fosters compassion for yourself and others. It replaces self-criticism with more positivity and helps you feel more socially connected. Furthermore, it can reduce pain associated with migraines and slow down aging.
To get you started, I’ve created a loving kindness meditation you can listen to each day. Click here to access this recording and track your progress over time. Consider taking a scientific approach. Assess your gratitude score by using the GRAT and journal about any changes you notice as a result of your practice. This may give you one more thing to be grateful for.