A lot gets written about gratitude and there are many people telling us to start gratitude journals. If you have a judgemental side, which I do, it can be easy to label a lot of these advocates as "tree huggers." There is, however, another side to me, that being the person who is determined to be open minded and open to new experiences. While it feels intuitively true that feeling grateful can lighten my mood I decided to look a little more in to this subject and examine the evidence.
The downsides of gratitude
I think it is important to look at both sides of the coin and in my own experience gratitude can have an unwelcome side to it.
Firstly there is the way it can be used to put you down and minimise your own experience. The words "be grateful for what you have!" will have been directed to many children in their life as their parents' clumsy way of suggesting that they may be unnecessarily moaning and taking the role of victim. It also has a context around our own emotional experience where many of us feel down or anxious and our inner voice counters with words to the effect of "what do you have to be down about? There are millions in the world worse off than you."
As a therapist friend once said to me "just because it is true that there are many more people worse off than you it does not invalidate your experience or the way you are feeling at that time."
Then there is the enforced gratitude that we are taught as children which, in my opinion, is really a factor of a world that is too plentiful and relies too much on consumption. This is where I am expected to be grateful for the gift that I didn't want and will never use. As I type that I am aware of how spoiled those words sound but there will be times when many of us feel that way however unfair it sounds. The upside of the turmoil we have been through in this year of COVID19 is that it has focused many of us back down to what really is important and how grateful we can be.
The other big issue that many have with gratitude is that as a result of our own unhelpfully high expectations in life, when it is suggested we practice gratitude, we find it difficult to be grateful for anything. Unless it's a new car, house, lottery win or job everything else pales in comparison.
For those reasons alone we can find it difficult to buy into this idea of "practising" gratitude.
What does the research say about it?
There is a lot of research in this area. So much, in fact, that I had to edit this section otherwise it would have been far too long.
Saying thank you to someone, and meaning it, is saying "I value you and what you bring to my life." If that sounds a little cheesy, try it. Try saying that to someone who you genuinely mean it about and see the, more importantly, feel the result for both of you. Maybe the first time, if that is not your usual style you will feel a little embarrassed. Don't worry it is worth it.
Having a strong support network is a big tick in the resilience box and according to research(1) helps us "find, remind, and bind" ... in other words, it helps us find whom we can trust; it solidifies the bonds; and it reminds us that we have someone valuable we can count on… all of which can enhance our physical and mental health.
In another study, it was found that expressing and receiving gratitude is associated with increased oxytocin among relationship partners(2). Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, generosity and affection and who wouldn't benefit from increases in those areas.
Our Emotional Health
These times have heightened our sense of uncertainty and contributed to our anxiety levels rising. Even in so-called "normal" times we experience stress from our workplace, our relationships and life in general. It has been shown that choosing to feel a sense of gratitude during times of adversity can be a source of emotional resilience. Research has shown that positive emotions, such as gratitude, have the unique capacity to rejuvenate us when we are depleted by stress(3). Simply taking a moment to pause and reflect on what's good in one's life can be restorative. Choosing to stop, appreciate and savor even the most simple of joys (a beautiful sunset; the sound of soft rain) can serve as an antidote to anxiety and therefore be restorative.
It can help with traumatic times. Some researchers in the US looked into resilience and emotional health of survivors of the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre. They found that emotions such as gratitude contributed to psychological resilience in survivors. People might have felt grateful to be alive or to know that their loved ones were safe, which in turn, resulted in lower levels of depression following the attacks(4).
Our Physical Health
Studies across different cultures have shown that those that practice being grateful have fewer physical issues than those that don't. Issues such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues and respiratory infections were noticeably reduced, and immune system functioning was improved. Those who were more grateful were more likely to engage in positive healthy activities such as exercise or taking medication on time. Fostering "positive affect skills" like gratitude may improve health and enhance greater longevity(5).
If ever there was a simple link between physical health and mental health it is the quality and amount of sleep we get. Lack of quality sleep is linked to weight gain and poor mental health outcomes. What are named as "pre-sleep cognitions" can have a big impact on our sleep. In other words the quality of the thoughts we carry to bed with us are influential on our sleep and therefore other parts of our physical and mental health. Grateful people have fewer negative thoughts and more positive cognitions prior to going to sleep, which together delivers better sleep overall. So, before going to bed each night, take a moment of reflection, and consider things that inspire gratitude and appreciation over the course of the day(6).
I could go on citing areas of your health and wellbeing that gratitude can impact and give you references to studies by well respected academics but I won't.
Instead I am going to assume that by now you may be slightly interested in how you may be able to be more grateful. Like anything it takes a little bit of effort, it can be about bringing it to the front of our consciousness and developing gentle healthy habits around it. Here's a couple of ways you can do it with minimum effort and maximum impact
Make it part of your awareness.
Simply start every day with the intention of looking for the things you can be grateful for. Some people set a reminder on their phone to go off 3 or 4 times a day so that they can pause and think about things they are grateful for. Others have an object such as a stone they may have found on the beach which is on their desk in plain sight.They touch it occasionally and remind themselves of things they are grateful for.
Keep a gratitude journal
This does not have to be an onerous task. A small notebook that you carry with you. Once a day make 5 minutes to sit down, write down the things you are grateful for and allow yourself a pause to genuinely let that sense of gratitude be there. Don't turn it into a task that is done and then you move on. Note them down, review them, enjoy the feeling.
Remember, being grateful for the small things is as good as the big ones. In fact the small things happen more often and are therefore, more sustaining. The lie in on a Sunday, the lady or gentleman who returned your smile in the street, the comfy blanket you have to snuggle up in while watching tv in the winter... whatever gives you a sense of comfort and joy be grateful for.
Make it part of your pre-sleep routine. Before you go to bed remind yourself of things you're grateful for and may be over time you will add better quality of sleep to your list of things to be grateful for.
If you search for ways to practice gratitude you will find many ways. Some of them may push your sense of inhibition. The very act of "practising gratitude" may bring to the fore all your judgments and may conjure up images of people sipping through fields with flowers in their hair. It doesn't have to be like that.
Find your own way of being grateful regularly and often and it will, over time, yield benefits to you.
Go on...try it.
1 - Algoe, 2010
2 - Algoe & Way, 2014
3 - Tugade, Devlin, & Fredrickson, 2016
4 - Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003
5 - Moskowitz, 2014
6 - Wood, Joseph, & Atkin, 2009