Musician and songwriter Willie Nelson once said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
Study after study on gratitude shows how simple exercises of appreciation build emotional resilience, improve our relationships, and promote our well-being. Gratitude researchers like Martin Seligman, PhD, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Robert Emmons, PhD, director of the Emmons Lab on gratitude research at the University of California in Davis; and Michael McCullough, PhD, director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, demonstrate that people who keep gratitude journals are more optimistic and have fewer physical symptoms than those who don’t, and that daily discussions of gratitude can reduce signs of depression and stress.
The holidays are a good time to reflect on our many blessings and can provide some motivation to practice gratitude on a more regular basis. Here are some ideas on how to squeeze a little gratitude into your day.
1. Write Thank-You Letters
According to Dr. Emmons, a powerful exercise in cultivating gratitude is to compose a “gratitude letter” to a person who has made a positive and lasting influence in your life. Emmons, who also wrote Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, says the letter is especially powerful when you haven’t 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.
2. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California in Riverside, says keeping a gratitude journal (in which you record all the things you have to be grateful for once a week) and other gratitude exercises can increase your energy, as well as relieve pain and fatigue.
A study published in April 2004 in the Journal of Research in Personality looked at the gratitude behavior of 90 undergraduate students. They were divided into two groups; the first wrote about a positive experience each day for two minutes, and the second wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences reported better mood levels, had made fewer visits to the health center, and had experienced fewer illnesses.
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 a gorgeous 70-degree day in November, a supply of dark chocolate, swimming with friends, and an afternoon with only one meltdown from my kids.
I like the quote by the opera singer Robert Brault that says, “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
3. Replace Negative Words With Positive Words
According to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, and neuroscience researcher 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 frontal 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.
Lately, I’ve been trying to catch myself when profanity or something negative is about to come out of my mouth. I’m not all that good at this, but I definitely believe that words have power, and that by making a few subtle shifts in our language, we can promote gratitude and generate better health for ourselves.
Volunteering with kids, homeless people, the elderly, or the infirm is an effective way to change your perspective, especially if you’re in pain or suffering yourself. According to a study published in September 2002 in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also living with chronic pain. “Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain,” they wrote.
5. Perform Random Acts of Kindness
You need not be a formal volunteer in order to show kindness. There are millions of opportunities every day to be kind:
- Compliment a stranger (this is one of my favorites).
- Hold a door open for someone.
- Let someone with a few items cut in front of you at the grocery store.
- Run an errand for a friend.
- Pick up your neighbor’s newspaper.
- Call a lonely older person to chat.
- Bring your dog to a retirement home for folks to pet.
- Help an elderly person to her car.
- Allow a car to cut in front of you in traffic.
You get the idea. Something happens in these small exchanges that causes a ripple effect. The kindness is paid forward from person to person — even though you may have no idea what good resulted from your simple thoughtfulness. In your generosity, however small, gratitude is born.
6. Smile for 30 Days
James Moss started a revolution called The Smile Epidemic — essentially a digital gratitude journal where people can share what makes them happy and find out what makes other people happy.
A former lacrosse player, Moss was diagnosed with a muscular neurological disorder and had to learn how to walk all over again. One night when he was at a low point, he heard the sound of his kids laughing in the bathtub down the hall and realized that he should be thankful he wasn’t in the hospital and could hear the laughter. So he took a picture of himself holding a piece of paper with a smile on it and posted it on Facebook. He continued to do it as a way of expressing his gratitude, and others joined in. Now his mission is to create “The Happiest Community on Earth.” His Tumblr page says:
We ask people to be mindful of the simple things in life that bring us happiness and believe that taking note of what makes you smile for 30 days can change the way you look at the world. Please share something. Step 1: Take note of something that made you smile. Step 2: Take a picture of yourself with the note in front of your smile. Step 3: Share it with us and the world.
7. Hang With Positive People
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, including yourself.”
Research confirms that. In one study, published in December 2008 in the British Medical Journal and conducted by Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, director of the Human Nature Lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston and James Fowler, PhD, a professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego, individuals who associated themselves with happy people were more likely to be happy themselves.
Another study, published in January 2014 in Clinical Psychological Science, showed that risk factors for depression can actually be contagious when our social environments are in flux. So you’ll have a better shot of becoming a more grateful, positive person if you surround yourself with grateful people.
8. Make a Gratitude Ritual
One family I know has a gratitude ritual every night at dinner. After prayers, each person goes around the table saying something positive that happened to them that day — one thing for which they’re grateful.
In our home, we’re lucky to get everyone seated without a meltdown, so I’ve filed this exercise for down the road a little — maybe after hormones are stabilized. But I thought it was a really nice way of cultivating gratitude as a family and teaching that value to non-hormonal kids.
9. Try a Loving-Kindness Meditation
In a landmark study published in November 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and her team showed that practicing seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased a sense of gratitude, as well as a host of other positive emotions.
The benefits intensified over time, producing a range of other health benefits: increased mindfulness, sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased symptoms of illness.
Sociologist Christine Carter, PhD, with the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, gives a nice overview of how to do a simple loving-kindness meditation in five minutes a day on her blog.
Because research demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: no need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes toward other people.
Join Project Hope & Beyond, an online depression community.
Photo credit: Trina Dalziel/Getty Images
Published originally on Sanity Break.