Thanksgiving is a time when even the most begrudging among us stops to name those things for which he is grateful. Gratitude and appreciation are two weapons we can use against depression and anxiety. In fact, Dan Baker writes in his book, “What Happy People Know” that it is impossible to be in a state of appreciation and fear at the same time. Here, then, are some ways we can cultivate gratitude.
1. Keep a gratitude journal
According to psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California Riverside, keeping a gratitude journal—where you record once a week all the things you have to be grateful for—and other gratitude exercises can increase your energy, and relieve pain and fatigue. In my daily mood journal, I make a list of each day’s “little joys,” moments that I would fail to appreciate if I didn’t make myself record them, such as: “holding my daughter’s hand on the way to the car,” “a hot shower,” “helping my son with his homework.” This exercise reminds me of all the blessings in my life I take for granted and encourages me to appreciate those mundane moments that can be sources of joy.
2. Use the right words
According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, words can literally change your brain. In their book, “Words Can Change Your Brain,” they write: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” Positive words, like “peace” and “love” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our front lobes and promoting the cognitive functioning of the brain. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, explain the authors, and build resiliency.
“Gratitude is the heart’s memory” says the French proverb. Therefore, one of the first steps to thankfulness is to remember… to remember those in our lives who have walked with us and shown kindness for deeds big and small. I have been extremely fortunate to have so many positive mentors in my life. At every scary crossroad, there was a guardian or messenger there to help me find my way. The mere exercise of remembering such people can cultivate gratitude in your life.
4. Write thank you letters
According to psychologist Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis, author of “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” a powerful exercise in cultivate gratitude to compose a “gratitude letter” to a person who has made a positive and lasting influence in your life. Emmons says the letter is especially powerful when you have not properly thanked the person in the past, and when you read the letter aloud to the person face to face. I do this as part of my holiday cards, especially to former professors or teachers who helped shape my future and inspired me in ways they might not know.
5. Hang with the winners
Peer pressure never really goes away, you know. Studies show that married folks hanging out with happy couples are more likely to stay married themselves; that if your friends eat well, their will power will rub off on you; and that if you surround yourself with optimists, you will end up more positive than if you keep company with a bunch of whiners. By merely sitting next to a person who likes the words “thank you,” there is a high probability that you will start using those words as well.
6. Give back
Awhile back I wanted to repay a former professor of mine for all his encouragement and support to me throughout the years. However, nothing I could do would match his kindness. No letter of appreciation. No visit to his classrooms. So I decided I would help some young girl who fell into my path in the same way that he helped me. I would try to help and inspire this lost person just as he had done for me.
Giving back doesn’t mean reciprocating favors so that everything is fair and the tally is even. That’s the beauty of giving. If someone does an act of kindness for you, one way to say thanks is to do the same for another.
Originally published on “Sanity Break” at Everyday Health.