Growing up, my parents would often say something like “in all instances, one should be grateful” or “no matter how grateful we are, it’s never enough.” As a kid, I just nodded and stared at them blankly (just like when my dad said, “don’t ruin your credit!”). As a teenager, it would irritate me when they’d say it after I shared how unfair it was that a kid picked on me at school for wearing generic Reebok sneakers, or that my brother played with my toys without asking, or that I didn’t get a second helping of ice cream.
My parents’ usual responses included statements about needing to be grateful for having more than one pair of shoes, a toy chest full of toys, and for being able to afford ice cream in the first place! This, of course, left me irritated. I couldn’t understand their reasoning: why would you be grateful for negative things?!?! Surely, my parents had it all wrong, or at the very least, never really listened to me, I thought.
As I got older, I realized how wrong I was and how right they were. Maybe it was based on the fact that they were immigrants from a third-world country and complaining about first-world problems showed ingratitude. Maybe it was innate and something that they’d inherited from their parents. Whatever it was, it rubbed off on me because the older I got, the more I agreed with their sentiment that practicing gratitude improves your life, keeps you humble, and increases your abundance (you must be grateful for what you already have if you want more, right?!?!).
What Is Gratitude?
As I mentioned in my previous post, gratitude is about giving thanks for all the goodness that surrounds you, appreciating your life, what you have, the people in it, and all that’s available to you. (It’s also a lesson under Rule #6 in the Ten Rules for Being Human.) Gratitude has been defined by philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries, with psychologists as the most recent group to take a stab at it (hell, there’s a whole compendium on The Psychology of Gratitude, if you’re interested).
The major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., view it as a significant human character, resulting in a life well-lived. And now with science backing up what wise sages have known all along, more and more people are jumping on board and looking for ways to increase it in their lives. (But why does science have to validate it before we come to recognize its importance?!?! That’s a whole other post, people.)
The Science of Gratitude
The research on gratitude explores many facets such as individual, social, and cultural factors that help explain why some practice it more than others; the physical and psychological health benefits; and the many ways gratitude is defined and measured by various disciplines such as philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology, to name a few. The following is a summary of the science of gratitude (because anything more would turn this into an academic paper and we’re not interested in that, are we?!?!).
While there are a lot of studies on gratitude, choosing which ones to highlight in this post would be a taxing exercise (and my days of writing exhaustive literature reviews are over!). Luckily, I found a very recent, well-written collection of studies on gratitude at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (you’re welcome!). Making sense of academic research can be frustrating sometimes because the answers don’t always seem clear-cut (which is probably why your average person stays away from academic journals). But IMHO it’s better than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants pseudoscience that’s paraded as concrete proof that something exists.
In academic research, one study can show evidence that something exists, but another can show different results. Sometimes if you’re comparing studies, you might be comparing apples and oranges, so comparisons might not be helpful. Also, when studying phenomena like human behavior, gratitude, happiness, etc., you’re not talking about CAUSATION. (There’s no such thing when studying human behavior.) Even in medical studies, researchers are hesitant about using the word causation. In the social sciences, it’s about correlation because researchers understand that there can be multiple variables that account for a study’s results.
So take a deep breath and come explore with me. Or not, and just skip to the part where I highlight some strategies to increase the practice of gratitude in your life. (Whatever floats your boat!)
Individual, social, and cultural factors. As far as individual factors, the results are mixed. You can’t say that gratitude is a trait such as the broad Big Five personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness). But someone who’s socialized to be more grateful will display it more than someone who isn’t socialized to do so (ahem, yours truly). As far as social and cultural factors, religiousness is strongly associated with gratitude. Prayer, for instance, induces gratitude, which can be a reason for the strength of the association between religiousness and gratitude (but if you’re not religious or a believer, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less grateful).
As for cultural factors, how gratitude is defined and practiced has a significant influence on its prevalence. For example, women are more likely than men to practice gratitude. American men express less gratitude than German men. People in the United Kingdom define gratitude negatively (indebtedness, guilt, awkwardness) than their American counterparts, and are less likely to practice it. And as for parenting, the research shows that parents have a strong mediating factor, but this doesn’t explain the “hows/whys” (and you shouldn’t be too hung up on these things unless you’re a scholar who wants to study the intricacies of gratitude).
Physical and psychological benefits. The research seems more definitive when it comes to the health benefits of practicing gratitude. In general, practicing gratitude is correlated with better physical health, “less fatigue, better sleep, and lower levels of cellular inflammation.” Those with chronic illness report less depression when practicing gratitude, and better sleep when engaging in gratitude exercises (journaling, for example). The studies exploring psychological benefits have shown that those dealing with substance abuse who practice gratitude show improved coping strategies.
Practicing gratitude has also shown to be effective in helping those with mental illness lower their stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s also helped people engage in fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts, and report higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. For those suffering from trauma, practicing gratitude helps them become more resilient (aka post-traumatic growth). Lastly, practicing gratitude has helped people cultivate other virtues such as “patience, humility, and wisdom.”
But what about when you experience challenges, like really horrendous things such as the sudden death of a loved one, a job loss, a terrible accident, or an unforgivable betrayal? I honestly can’t and won’t – in the context of this post – tell you to focus on what you have and give thanks for it (that’s too flippant). Experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing. Practicing gratitude can become an integral part of the healing process, and there are many exercises that can help you. Some of the ones that I practice are highlighted below.
Strategies to Increase Gratitude
(1) Take inventory. If this post has piqued your curiosity (enough) to gauge whether, or how much, you practice gratitude, there are a number of measures that can help. One is the Gratitude Questionnaire – Six Item Form (GQ-6), which is a part of a spirituality and health study and gives you benchmarks (where you fall on a range compared to others). If nothing else, it focuses your attention on the extent that you practice gratitude.
Another is the Gratitude Adjective Checklist (GAC), where you identify when you’ve been grateful, thankful, and appreciative, using a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). It can be done for the short- or long-term (one day or two weeks, for example). Finally, the Gratitude and Appreciation Scale (GRAT) – Short Form is a 16-item scale that measures gratitude as a trait and helps you understand if you’re grateful or a selfish prick (LOL, maybe that was a bit harsh, no?!?!).
(2) Daily lists. Once you figure out where you fall on the gratitude/ingratitude continuum, you can increase your practice by creating lists – either mentally or by writing them down. For me, this is different from keeping a journal. Keeping a daily log is something I do mentally, and it works like a charm when I’m in a funk. This might be challenging at first, but the more you do it, the more routine it becomes. When I catch myself thinking about the “what-ifs” and all that can go wrong in my life, I bring myself back to reality and think about what I’m grateful for. I list about 4-5 things, and just like that, my mood turns from negative to positive. Try it! It really works but you have to keep at it until it becomes an automatic response (like breathing).
(3). Journaling. The “doing” of journaling is something that can be very effective for cultivating gratitude. I’m a big fan of pretty notebooks, so any excuse to purchase a new one is great! If you’re interested in keeping a gratitude journal, I recommend you have one that’s solely for this purpose (not one that you use for work or school). I also think that journaling every day can be too much for some (myself included!). But maybe doing it every day may be just what you need, so test it out and see what works. You can start by writing the date, then the things that you’re grateful for (1. I’m grateful for… 2. I’m grateful for…). Start off with about 4-5 things, but don’t pressure yourself to come up with a certain number. There’s nothing too small to be grateful for (“I’m grateful for waking up this morning…”), so don’t make the exercise cumbersome.
I find that journaling at the end of the day or right before I go to bed works best for me because it gives me a chance to reflect on the day (or the last few days) and identify what I’m grateful for. Also, if you prefer a digital journal, check out your phone’s App Store and download one that you’re comfortable using.
To be clear, I create my gratitude list mentally – as often as a few times a day with things that are generally constants in my life (health, family, significant other, opportunities); whereas my journaling tends to focus on experiences I’ve had recently (but by no means is it restricted to this!). Try both and see what works for you!
(4). Visual board. If daily lists and journaling aren’t enough or don’t work, try a visual board. (I know people create vision boards using Law of Attraction principles, but this can also be a great way to induce the practice of gratitude.) You can do this by pasting images and quotes on a poster board that reminds you of the things, people, and experiences that you’re grateful for. Or you can create a digital version by using Powerpoint or some other software and set it as wallpaper on your laptop. People use Pinterest to pin things to their boards, but the point of a visual board is to have it displayed somewhere that you can see frequently (like on your bedroom wall, office, etc.).
(5). Mental subtraction. This exercise of practicing gratitude includes thinking about a positive occurrence (job offer, marriage, buying a house, etc.), and writing about what life would be like if it didn’t happen. Apparently, doing this helps you recognize what you’re grateful to have, and improves your mood. The appreciation for something we already have can be loosely defined in terms of the endowment effect, a behavioral economics concept that makes us value what we own. And along those lines, this can be explained by loss aversion, or the idea that losing something we have is worse than gaining something we don’t have (don’t you feel smarter now?!?!).
(6). Gratitude notes/letters. The mere act of saying thank you to someone increases your practice of gratitude. You can do this by writing a thank-you note or letter to someone in appreciation for something they’ve done (or maybe just for who they are!). I find that a handwritten thank-you note goes a long way…especially in a digital world where emails and texts have become the preferred means of communication. Every time I send a handwritten thank-you note or letter to someone, I almost always get a phone call (or email) thanking me for being so thoughtful, which warms my heart.
So how do you exercise gratitude? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, so drop a line in the comments section.
Love, peace, and blessings,