Last week we discussed appreciation and how it’s different than gratitude. I talked about how appreciation is all about being in the here and now and, by noticing it, you turn it from a neutral event into a positive one, thereby seeing it with new eyes.
Today we’re going to cover ALL things gratitude, which is something bigger and broader. Gratitude, to me, is when we look up from our appreciation in the moment and look at our larger world and the people outside ourselves.
We see that there are positive things in our lives (having success at our jobs or with our children), and that these wonderful things are due to people or forces outside of ourselves:
- This could be a spiritual belief (Thank you, God, for all that I have).
- Other people’s efforts (I’m so grateful my wife earns enough money that I don’t have to work full time and can devote myself to my passion of writing this novel).
- Other people’s accomplishments (I’m so grateful my parents made enough money to pay for my college education).
- Other people in general (I’m so grateful for my wonderful husband).
- General circumstances (I’m so grateful to live in such a safe neighborhood).
What’s the History of Gratitude?
Sociologist George Simmel calls gratitude, “The moral memory of mankind.” He believes that gratitude likely evolved “by strengthening bonds between members of the same species who mutually helped each other out.”
Michael McCullough’s research supports this idea. He says, “The positive feeling of gratitude can alert us to the benefits we’ve received from others and inspire us to show appreciation, which will in turn make others more likely to help us again in the future. In this way, gratitude helps build social bonds and friendships between individuals.”
What Else is Gratitude?
Eminent gratitude expert, Dr. Robert Emmons, from the University of California at Davis, says that it has two key components:
- It’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.
- We then recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves… We acknowledge that other people (or even a higher power) gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
Let’s Talk Benefits
People who practice gratitude have many benefits you’ve likely heard before. We know that gratitude improves well-being and physical health. Grateful people tend to have lower blood pressure, improved immunity, and healthier hearts. Some studies even suggest gratitude can help you live longer.
We also know that gratitude builds mental strength: Studies show grateful people are more resilient and are better equipped to manage stress; they experience fewer toxic emotions like resentment and envy.
Those are all great reasons to practice gratitude, but I’m going to talk about my top four reasons why gratitude is good from a slightly different perspective.
4 reasons why gratitude is good:
- Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present, and so it magnifies positive emotions.
- Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness and change.
- We adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new spouse or the new house – they don’t feel so new and exciting anymore.
- But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted.
- Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.
- We spend so much time watching things (movies, computer screens, Facebook feeds, sports), but with gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.
- Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions (like resentment, helplessness, and regret which can destroy our happiness).
- Research shows that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.
- You can’t feel envious and grateful at the same time. Research shows that people who have high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy.
- Grateful people are more stress resistant.
- There are a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly.
- Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.
- Emmons says, “Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life – once you realize that other people have seen the value in you – you can transform the way you see yourself.”
Let’s Talk Research
I’m going to jump into just a little of the research right now to drive home how gratitude works in your personal relationships, especially the one with your partner. In an experiment at Northeastern University, researchers Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno sabotaged each participant’s computer and arranged for another student to fix it. Afterward, the students who had been helped were likelier to volunteer to help someone else, a total stranger, with an unrelated task. What this experiment (and subsequent ones like it) shows is that gratitude seems to promote good karma. And if it works with strangers, imagine what will happen with your partner, friends, and coworkers!
Some of you reading this will be nice until someone (like your partner or boss) is mean to you. One of the big “don’ts” is not to ever engage in counterattack. If you’re bracing for insults with your partner, I need you to listen to this experiment at the University of Kentucky. After turning in a piece of writing, some students received praise for it while others got a scathing evaluation. They heard things like, “This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read!”
Then each student played a computer game against the person who’d done the evaluation. The winner of the game could administer a blast of white noise to the loser. Not surprisingly, the insulted essayists retaliated against their critics by subjecting them to especially loud blasts, much louder than the noise administered by the students who’d gotten positive evaluations.
But there was an exception to this trend among a subgroup of the students: the ones who had been instructed to write essays about things for which they were grateful. After that exercise in counting their blessings, they weren’t as bothered by the nasty criticism, and didn’t feel the need to seek revenge on their critics.
“Gratitude is more than just feeling good,” says Nathan DeWall, who led the study at Kentucky. “It helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy. It’s an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the holiday dinner table.”
GRATITUDE IS A GATEWAY DRUG!
If you’ve been following me for any period of time you know I say that a happy and fulfilling life is all about getting better at certain skills. Effective listening, confidence, and happiness are all skills. When you get better at these skills, you become a better communicator.
This is true for gratitude. Gratitude is a skill and, better yet, it’s a gateway skill. When you get good at it, you also get better at skills such as compassion and forgiveness.
So, let’s talk about how to get better at this skill called gratitude.
Here are some top tips and General Ideas for Practicing Gratitude:
- Gratitude journal.
- Count your blessings every am and pm.
- Concrete reminders to practice gratitude, which can be particularly effective in working with children who aren’t abstract thinkers like adults (gratitude jar for change and then donate).
- Gratitude for what you give versus receive (Mother Teresa talked about how grateful she was to the people she was helping because they enabled her to grow and deepen her spirituality).
- Remember the bad: remember the hard times you once experienced. Remember how difficult life used to be and how far you’ve come.
- Learn prayers of gratitude.
- Use visual reminders: the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness; visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger gratitude.
- Watch your language: grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance.