by Erin Guidry
Every Thanksgiving, conversations (both in-person and online) are filled with endless talk of gratitude. We’re grateful for family and our health, a good meal and the chance to gather together. But what about the day after Thanksgiving? Or the day after that? Or a random Tuesday in the middle of May? Do those days just simply not hold the same magic?
It’s one thing to feel grateful one day a year, but more and more, research is showing that focusing on gratitude as a daily practice has the potential to be literally life changing. The University of Pennsylvania has even created the Positive Psychology Center – a facility dedicated to rigorous testing and gathering data on how things like gratitude, grit, and resilience physically change our brains.
The impact of gratitude reaches into all corners of our lives, improving facets of our emotional wellbeing, social interactions, personality traits, career performance, and health (both physical and mental). Does that feel like a stretch? We promise it’s not! We’ll lay it out for you.
Makes us happier people
Increases our wellbeing
Conjures positive emotions
Keeps depression and suicidal thoughts at bay
Draws friends to us
Improves romantic relationships
Bolsters social support
Reinforces family relationships
Injects us with optimism
Encourages us to be more giving
Reduced materialism / pressure to consume
Makes us better managers
Reinforces meaning in our work
Reduces stress and work-related mental health issues
Staves off depression
Reduces blood pressure, thereby improving cardiac function
Helps us keep up with regular exercise
Overall boost to physical and mental health outcome
If gratitude has all these benefits, how come we aren’t all walking around every day overflowing with it? Two words: hedonic adaptation.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got
The human brain is a powerful and intriguing thing. Studies have shown that over time, we get used to stimuli, making it necessary for the stimulus to grow stronger and stronger to affect any increase in enjoyment or response. Put simply: we get so used to the good things we have that we don’t see them as anything special anymore over time.
This happens to your average Joe as much as it does to the rich and famous. Research on lottery winners, for instance, shows that after the initial shock and excitement of the win wears off, their levels of happiness largely return to what they were prior to their windfall.
It's not in our hard-wired nature as human beings to look around and appreciate everything we have fully, which is why cultivating a daily gratitude practice takes time and focus. But if you can commit to 5 minutes per day, you too can enjoy all the benefits gratitude can bring to your life.
How to Make it Happen
We spoke to Debra Perlson-Mishalove, Creative Director & Founder of Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC about her experience with a daily gratitude practice both for herself and her clients. “We can only hold so many thoughts in our head on any given day,” she said. “And contemplating things you're thankful for, big and small, often starts to replace the negative thoughts.”
With mental health being such a prominent struggle for so many Americans, now more than ever, we need to find ways to tap into an inner well of strength and positivity. “The research proves that having a gratitude practice is consistently associated with helping people feel more connected to positive emotions, which can greatly improve mental health and build resiliency,” Perlson-Mishalove said.
If doing something daily feels overwhelming to you, it’s okay (and honestly maybe best) to start small. “Think of one thing. Just one small thing. Oftentimes, trying to think of big things can make you spiral,” Perlson-Mishalove said. “After all, it’s the little things that make up our lives...and they add up.”
So how can you start working towards an attitude of gratitude and the amazing benefits that come along with it? Here are a few ideas.
Thinking of one thing you’re grateful for at the end of every day is a great way to start. An even better way is to write it down in a gratitude journal. When we write, it triggers activation in multiple parts of the brain, guaranteeing that we’ll form habits more easily and stick with them more consistently.
If journaling isn’t your favorite, or you’ve been doing it for a while and find yourself feeling stuck, having a physical representation of what you’re thankful for can be helpful. In this instance, you will write what you’re grateful for on a piece of paper and put it in a clear jar. You’ll see your gratitude grow and grow over weeks and months and if you’re ever feeling down, you can reach into the jar to read a few of them and remember all that you have to be thankful for.
In the same vein as being able to see the representation of gratitude in the clear jar, having a gratitude object is also a great option. This could be something as simple as a rock or coin. Just something that you attach that value to that can be a physical reminder to pause and reflect on something you’re grateful for. This is an especially good choice for folks who are on the move a lot.
Sometimes it can feel like we have very little to be thankful for. On those hardest days, it’s time to hit the pavement. Take a slow, intentional walk and observe everything you see around you. What in your natural environment are you thankful for? Find ways to ground yourself in this time and place, finding a way to see beauty even when things feel darkest.
This one might be hard for some people, but the dividends it pays are immense. Sit down and write (by hand or via email) a letter to someone you’re grateful to have in your life. Innumerate, in detail, why you’re grateful for them. Consider the whole of your relationship with them and uncover what it is about them that has enriched your life. What do you admire about them? What impact have they had on your life? Get honest and put it all out there—you’ll be overcome by the impact it will have on both you and the recipient.
One last tip: go for depth over breadth. There’s no need to name 10 things you’re grateful for every day (or the same 10 things every day). Pick one thing, no matter how small, and really ruminate on why you’re thankful for it.
Writing down “I’m thankful for a safe home, an operating vehicle, my health, my children, and my dog” is all well and good. But consider the value of isolating just one of those things and really digging into what it means to you. Example: “Today I’m especially thankful for my dog. He brings real joy to my life. He gives me a reason to keep going on days where I feel physically or emotionally exhausted. He stays by my side through good days and bad. He makes me laugh. He makes sure I’m never lonely. My life is richer with him in it.”
The second example obviously scratches more than just the surface, helping you really tap into gratitude in a meaningful way. We hope this guide has been helpful, and we encourage you to get started today, no matter how small, on your path towards a happier life through a daily practice of gratitude.