Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Gratitude can be similar to appreciation, and most of us express gratitude by saying “thank you” to those around us. A scientific perspective suggests that gratitude is not just an action but is also a positive emotion with a biological purpose. Gratitude can be defined as beyond more than feeling thankful but is a deeper appreciation for others or things which produces longer lasting positivity.
We may all have experienced gratitude especially during our happiest moments and memories. The powerful aspect of gratitude is that it can be consciously applied to most scenarios in our daily lives. Whether this be when eating a meal, listening to music, or having a conversation – doing this with full attention can help ground and bring us into the present.
Benefits of gratitude
There are many physical and psychological benefits to practicing gratitude. Leading researcher in the science of gratitude, Dr Robert Emmons, found those who practiced gratitude regularly reported physiological benefits of lower blood pressure, improved immune function and better sleep. Some of the psychological benefits include reduced emotions of frustration, envy, resentment, and regret. Gratitude practice has also been found to increase self-esteem, reduce social comparisons, increase mental strength, and enhance empathy (3).
It is given that life can throw unexpected circumstances at us with no warning, and sometimes challenging seasons can be ongoing. During these times, it can help us to be mindful of how our negative responses in excess can form neural pathways in our brains that suggest the most natural response to most circumstances is to complain about them. Gratitude can be thought of as an ongoing practice and an important dimension of our lives, allowing us to love the people around us and become more conscious of ourselves and our experiences.
Keeping a gratitude journal is an easy and effective way to cultivate gratitude daily. Dr Emmons’ research found that adults who regularly keep gratitude journal report few illness symptoms, exercise more regularly, are more optimistic about the future and feel more positively about their lives as a whole (4). Whether it be a journal, the notes app on your phone, a jar, or a poster – dedicate some time to write down at least three things you are grateful for each day. Here are some tips to keep you going:
1. Make it specific
Gratitude journaling has been found to be effective as it slowly changes how we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. One way of reaping the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you are grateful for every day. It may be challenging sometimes to come up with potential objects of gratitude, or you may feel that you are being repetitive in your journal. In these instances, allow yourself to get specific about your gratitude and your why. Our mind is drawn to sensations, feelings, moments, and drawing on these specific instances can be more helpful rather than simply listing areas of family, friends and health. We can get specific by saying “Today my sister made me my favourite snack when she knew I was really stressed”, or “Today I am thankful for my colleagues checking in with me and offering support with my busy workload”. These specific instances speak more directly to you and how your mind works.
2. Make it real
When trying to implement a new habit or goal, it can be useful to use a mental contrasting technique. This means being optimistic about the benefits of your new habit but also being realistic about any difficulties or challenges which may arise in building this habit. We can start by recognising and planning for any obstacles that may get in the way and finding a flexible solution. For instance, if you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day, accept that journaling before bed may not be the best time to focus and schedule your gratitude in the morning instead. If you find it difficult during the day to dedicate time, perhaps your daily commute or lunch break is an opportunity to exercise gratitude.
3. Make it social
Our relationships and interactions with others make up a big part of who we are. In gratitude, respect for others is shown by recognizing their good intentions in helping us. To enhance our practice, Dr Emmons encourages focusing our gratitude on people we are thankful for rather than material items or circumstances. You can directly acknowledge someone in your expression of gratitude and may wish to share these around the dinner table or group gathering. Be conscious of when, why and how you thank people and maybe even write a letter or card for someone who has had an impact on you.
References and further reading
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (Eds.). (2004). The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press.
(3) Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward, 248-262.
(4) Emmons, R. A., McCullough, M. E., & Tsang, J. A. (2003). The assessment of gratitude.
Scott, J, “The Cognitive Benefits of Gratitude”, November 2017. [Online]. Available https://medium.com/the-mission/the-cognitive-benefits-of-gratitude-967dfb6d5adf. [Accessed 2021].
Sturm, M, “How to Cultivate an Effective Gratitude Habit”, March 2017. [Online]. Available https://medium.com/personal-growth/3-steps-to-practicing-better-gratitude-ba3c620e5b55. [Accessed 2021].
https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier . [Accessed 2021].