I’m sitting on my deck, laptop perched on my outdoor table, and my beautiful dog by my feet. Finally, after weeks of humidity that made even breathing difficult, it’s warm with a cool breeze—the perfect weather to be working outside. As I gather my thoughts, I notice my emotional state: content, calm and peaceful. I am struck by the irony. Sitting here preparing to write about gratitude, I realize that is exactly what I am feeling today.|
My blessings are numerous. I have a career I am passionate about, which also allows me to work from home and create the schedule I want. After growing up in an apartment, I still marvel at the luxury of living in a private home with a lovely, quiet backyard that has become an extension of my office. I can go on and on, finding things to be grateful for right now, but I don’t always feel this way.
As a matter of fact, I had planned to write this article the other day but I was feeling anything but grateful. My email program had gone haywire, causing me to lose many important messages, and not allowing me to send the ones I was writing. I wasted hours on the phone with technical support, to no avail. To add to my not so pleasant mood, my daughter was supposed to start a new job that day but her new supervisor was nowhere to be found. To top that off, a foot injury that had slowly been healing, was acting up and throbbing all day.
Needless to say, I did not write about gratitude that day. I honestly don’t even know what I accomplished, and when I flopped into bed exhausted—and still frustrated—my mind wandered to the preparatory research I had done for this article. Believe it or not, researchers in the field of positive psychology have been studying the effect of gratitude on health and well-being for years.
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are two of the leading American investigators of gratitude. They describe gratitude as personality strength—the ability to be keenly aware of the good things that happen to you and never take them for granted. Grateful individuals express their thanks and appreciation to others in a heartfelt way, not just to be polite. If you possess a high level of gratitude, you often feel an emotional sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life itself.
Researchers are finding that individuals who exhibit and express the most gratitude are happier, healthier, and more energetic. Grateful people report fewer symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, even acne, and spend more time exercising! And the more a person is inclined towards gratitude, the less lonely, stressed, anxious and depressed he or she will be.
Martin Seligman, a researcher and teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, is considered the father of positive psychology. He developed an inventory, the VIA (which stands for Values In Action) Survey of Character Strengths, which allows individuals to explore character traits and rate their personal strengths and aspects of happiness. He noticed that when an individual had an insufficient appreciation of good events, and an overemphasis of bad or unfortunate experiences, it greatly undermined their serenity, contentment and satisfaction with life.
Seligman conducted research with his students, using one of the exercises that Emmons and McCullough developed in their experimental investigations, namely, counting your blessings. When asked to write down five things for which they felt grateful for, once a week, for 10 weeks in a row, exciting results emerged. Students reported feeling less stressed, more content, optimistic and satisfied with their life. These were similar to findings of other researchers, which showed that participants who counted their blessings on a regular basis became happier as a result.
Even more interesting, when Dr. Seligman than asked his student to write gratitude letters to significant individuals in their lives, and conduct gratitude visits where they read those letters out loud to the recipients, it fostered not only increased feelings of joy, but also a closer meaning and pleasure derived from the relationship.
It would appear that counting our blessings on a regular basis can improve our moods and overall level of happiness and health, but expressing that appreciation to others will do so even more. And the good news is that noticing, appreciating and expressing our feelings for life’s little blessings can produce just as much benefit as noticing the monumental moments.
So it certainly seems that developing a higher level of gratitude is emotionally, physically and mentally rewarding. But, how do you increase your feelings of gratitude when nothing seems to be going right, or life presents great challenges and adversity? Is it really possible to express gratitude when you are not feeling you have anything to be grateful for?
Although we may acknowledge gratitude’s benefits, it can still feel difficult to feel grateful when we are going through a difficult time. That’s why it makes so much sense to practice gratitude, in good times and bad. It may be human nature to notice all that is wrong or that we lack, but if we give ourselves the chance on a regular basis to notice all of lives gifts and blessings, we can increase our sense of well-being, and create hope and optimism for the future—no matter what is going on.
Here are some ways to start practicing gratitude to improve your well-being:
For today, the warm breeze, my outdoor office, and the singing of the birds in the trees all fill my heart with gratitude and joy! What are you grateful for today?
Ben-Shahar, Tal. 2007. Happier. New York: McGraw Hill
Emmons, R.A., and McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84: 377-89.
Fredrickson, Barbara L. 2009 Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books
Seligman, Martin. 2002. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press