“Gratitude is many things to many people,” writes Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. “It is wondering; it is appreciation; it is looking at the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life; it is thanking God; it is ‘counting blessings.’ It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented.”
Some people call it an attitude, some call it an action, and some call it an emotion. Regardless of the terms used to describe it, gratitude is a person’s choice to look for the good in life. It is also one of the easiest happiness practices to add to your life, because there is always something for which to be grateful. It’s an easy habit to adopt, because it offers an immediate physical and emotional reward. Think about it. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel discouraged and grateful at the same time. When you notice the good in the world, you immediately feel better.
For those for whom gratitude is a way of life, the benefits are even greater. Studies have revealed that grateful people experience improved immunity, better sleep and lower blood pressure. They are also better equipped to overcome mild to moderate depression and improve their relationships.
Although saying thank you is a good start, becoming a grateful person—one whom Robert Emmons describes as a person who receives and accepts all of life as a gift—doesn’t happen overnight. It does, indeed, require practice. Emmons, who is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology and a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis, explains that the practice of gratitude comprises two key components: affirming the goodness in the world around you and recognizing that the source of this goodness is something outside yourself.
Happy Act: Count Your Blessings. Make a list—right now—of at least five things or people for whom you are grateful.
Tap Into the Power of Gratitude
Whether you are dealing with a major life-shattering event, experiencing a small bump in the road, or interested in improving your relationships, gratitude can help.
“When we become more grateful, and acknowledge what we have through a lens of appreciation, it helps us focus on what is important to us,” explains Louis Alloro, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. “We are conditioned to focus on what’s not working rather than to look at what is working. Gratitude changes what we look at and how we see it. It’s an essential ingredient for a life well-lived.”
Many people emphasize the importance of “being” grateful, but Louis teaches it’s important to take it a step further and “feel” gratitude. “It is key to feel it in your heart instead of keeping it in your mind,” he says. “When you say you’re grateful for something, it’s very often something that happened in the past—even if it was earlier that day. So I encourage people to not just say why they’re grateful, but to take a moment to remember how they felt when that was happening.”
Taking time to feel that appreciation again releases dopamine and allows you to re-enact the experience emotionally, generating healing positive feelings. “The payoff is huge,” Louis says. “It takes a little more time and more effort, but you’ll see such a difference in the way it affects you.”
Happy Act: Take a Gratitude Walk: Go for a walk with your spouse, child, parent or friend. Take turns noting things you’re grateful for.
Five Ways to Get Started
Keep a gratitude journal. Once a week or once a day make notes about the people, things or circumstances for which you are grateful. Your notes don’t have to be long—a sentence or two is enough to remind you of the gifts you’ve recently experienced.
Use words that acknowledge the external source of goodness. Grateful people use words like “gifts,” “givers,” “blessings,” “blessed,” “good fortune,” “fortunate” and “abundance.” In gratitude, you should not focus on how inherently good you are, but rather on the inherently good things that others have done on your behalf.
Encourage gratitude. Ask your child, grandchild or a friend, “What was the best part of your day today?”
Write a gratitude letter. Send or hand-deliver a note of thanks to someone who has made a difference in your life.
Relive the feeling of gratitude. Go beyond identifying a positive experience and mentally relive it. Focus on how the experience made you feel. Savor that feeling.