An Attitude of Gratitude

It’s our human nature to dwell on the negative. This tendency–called the “negativity bias“–is the propensity to focus on problems, annoyances, and injustices in our lives rather than focusing on being grateful for the events or people that are working and we feel good about. But with effort, we can change that propensity, and research shows that effort is well worth it: feeling grateful can have a powerfully positive effect on our lives, health, and psychological and emotional well-being.

Cultivating gratitude is not about ignoring painful feelings or dismissing challenges. It is not about encouraging anyone to be pollyanna, “new agey,” or to use a spiritual bypass or toxic positivity. Those routes only lead to an increase in psychological problems. Cultivating gratitude is about the simple act of focusing daily on what you’re grateful for, which can have a tremendously positive psychological impact.

Samantha Stein
Death Valley
Source: Samantha Stein

Research by Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., has found that adults who feel grateful are more optimistic, report more social satisfaction, experience less envy, less depression, and fewer physical complaints. They also sleep better and get more exercise. Kids who experience more gratitude do better in school, set higher goals for themselves, derive more satisfaction from life, friends, family, and school, are generally less materialistic, and have more desire to give back.

Gratitude can also have a social benefit. In other research by Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and a pioneer in gratitude research, people who were assigned the task of making a daily gratitude list were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to those who focused on the hassles of life or comparing themselves to others.

In other research, gratitude helped couples feel more positive about the other person and the relationship, and employees felt more motivated to work harder for their manager when their manager was grateful.

So how do we change from our negative habits to that of feeling more regular gratitude? People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.

Here are some suggestions about how to actively cultivate gratitude:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Document daily what you feel grateful about. Sometimes it helps to pick a number–such as three to five things–that you’ll identify each day or week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you. Try not to repeat yourself, but regularly find new things.
  2. Get a gratitude buddy and regularly talk about what you are grateful for with your buddy. Your buddy can help you make sure you acknowledge where your joy comes from.
  3. Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter or email expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.
  4. No time to write?Thank someone mentally. It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you and mentally thank the individual.
  5. Watch your language even when talking to yourself–be mindful of when you’re focusing on the negative.
  6. Savor the good times with family and friends. Photos, drawings, written accounts, and verbally acknowledging and appreciating people and events keep you focused on the things you feel grateful for.
  7. Pray. People who are religious and/or spiritual can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
  8. Pause mindfully during the day when something happens that you feel grateful about; make a mental note.
  9. Focus on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).

There will be a need for some experimentation as to what works for you (and your family). Some may find that they enjoy reviewing daily gratitude at the dinner table, while others can leave a log book in the living room that can be added to on a regular basis.

Others find that meditation can give them an experience of this bliss. Whatever way you find, it may feel strange, artificial, or uncomfortable at first–this is to be expected because of our natural tendency to be negative. But after some time, our habits will change… and perhaps our life will follow. As we approach the calendar change and New Year’s Resolutions, it is certainly something to think about and consider for adults and children alike.