Want To Be Happier? Science Says Practice Gratitude

Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” once wrote, “‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, and understanding.”

Just as science has been confirming the health benefits of forgiveness (see my blog post: A Simple Habit for a Longer, Healthier Life), research continues to support another practice long encouraged in my own Christian spiritual tradition: gratitude. Importantly, the research points to a practice of gratitude, not simply some amorphous attitude of gratitude. More on that shortly.

In one study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons (University of California, Davis) and Dr. Michael E McCullough (University of Miami), participants were asked to write a few sentences each week focusing on the following topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had happened. A second group wrote about irritations or things that had displeased them. A third group wrote about things that had affected them without emphasizing the positive or negative aspects. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about things they were thankful for reported feeling more optimistic and better about their lives. As an unexpected byproduct, they also reported exercising more and visiting their doctor less than those who had written about irritations and displeasing incidents. (See a more detailed summary here.)

In a study of couples reported in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but, surprisingly, also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship. See the referenced edition of The Harvard Mental Health Letter for more interesting research on gratitude.

Forbes.com published an article listing seven scientifically proven benefits of gratitude (see it here): 1) Gratitude opens the door to more relationships; 2) Gratitude improves physical health; 3) Gratitude improves psychological health; 4) Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression; 5) Grateful people sleep better; 6) Gratitude improves self-esteem; and 7) Gratitude increases mental strength.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Dr. Brene Brown writes, “When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.” “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.” “People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected.”

Dr. Brown likens the difference between a gratitude attitude and practice to the difference between a yoga attitude and practice. One can have a yoga attitude (mindfulness, presence, body-mind-spirit interconnectedness, etc.) and even own yoga pants, but the difference comes when you put on the yoga pants and spend time doing yoga. Her research discovered gratitude practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, doing daily gratitude meditations or prayers, creating gratitude art, and even stopping during the day to say out loud, “I am grateful for…” Dr. Brown concludes, “It seems that gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works — it’s not alive.”

Intuitively, one might think that happier and healthier people are more thankful. But it turns out that the reverse is true: thankful people are happier and healthier. This is good news because it means you have a choice you can make today that will lead to a happier healthier life. Choose to practice gratitude.

Here are 11 ways to include gratitude as a regular practice in your life. Choose one. Practice it for two weeks and see if you don’t notice the difference.

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. (This seems to be a popular one, but I have never been able to successfully keep a journal about anything for very long!)
  2. Thank/compliment someone specifically every day.
  3. Use a gratitude jar. On slips of paper, write something every day that you are grateful for. When you are feeling a little bitter, open the jar and remind yourself of all you have to be thankful for. You can also make this into a relational game with family or friends. Fill the gratitude jar as a family. At the end of a week or two, read the slips of paper one at a time and try to guess who is thankful for what.
  4. Intentionally avoid starting any conversation with a complaint.
  5. When a complaining thought pops into your head, counter it with a grateful thought.
  6. Use “what can I learn?” when confronted with difficult situations or people. Most of our real learning comes through struggle and difficulty. So when that comes, ask, “What can I learn?” and be grateful for the opportunity.
  7. Take a gratitude walk, noticing things with amazement and beauty.
  8. Have intentional gratitude conversation (perhaps at meals?).
  9. Thank people in service jobs (e.g. cashiers, waiters, etc.).
  10. Make/display gratitude art.
  11. Pray or meditate, visualizing things for which you are thankful.
As for me? I’m thankful you read this far and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help other people through writing!
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John Rallison is the pastor of Journey of Life Lutheran Church, celebrating 11 years in Lake Nona. You can hear or watch his recent sermon on gratitude by visiting www.journeyoflife.org.

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