November is recognized as Gratitude Month, a month that is dedicated to giving thanks. Over the last few years, I have learned to value the virtue of gratitude and have encouraged many to develop the daily habit of listing five things for which they are grateful. I recognize that maintaining a positive attitude is easier for some than others, primarily because of one’s genes. Some people might be like Therese J. Borchard who, in the beginning, had to force gratitude into her life by writing only about very simple things for which she was thankful (e.g., cream cheese and bagel). After the birth of her second child, she suffered from severe depression and found it very difficult to identify things for which she was grateful. To read more about her journey, she has written the book, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
There are many articles and books that help to remind us of the importance and power of gratitude. One example was the Gratitude Campaign that Scott Truitt began a few years ago. In this campaign, individuals were taught a simple gesture that shows their gratitude to servicemen and women in uniform by placing one’s hand over one’s heart when they pass them in public areas, such as airports or malls. Even in the Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, it appears evident that often our greatest opportunities for gratitude come when we are in deep despair or after experiencing adversity of some kind.
Why is it so important to express gratitude? In 1998, Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons began researching gratitude and its role in happiness. They found “scientific evidence that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and interpersonal” (Emmons, 2007, pg. 3). Before this time, it was viewed that each of us had a “set-point” of happiness that could not be reset or altered. Their findings confirmed that by exercising gratitude, happiness could be increased. In addition, Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, authors of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, describe how gratitude can improve a person’s physical health. They reported that by focusing just 15 minutes each day on things for which you are grateful, the body’s natural antibodies could be increased.
What are some ways that gratitude can be exercised?
- Keep a gratitude journal. In the bestseller, A Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude, author Sarah Ban Breathnach shows one way to keep a gratitude journal. Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons found in their research that keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks resulted in better sleep and more energy (Emmons, 2007, pg. 33). Try this approach: Each day, spend a few minutes in reflection and in writing a brief journal entry. Some of us may be like Borchard and begin with simple things, but as gratitude is exercised, benefits will be recognized.
- Write a gratitude letter. Select a mentor, friend or family member for whom you are grateful and write a letter to this person. Express in the letter what this person has meant to you and how he/she has helped you to become the person you are today.
- Remain cognizant of the small things in your life. If you struggle to remember to be grateful, wear a gratitude bracelet. There are many examples of these bracelets online that can help to remind us to think of areas for which to be thankful.
- Read books on gratitude. Two suggested books are: Count Your Blessings: 101 Stories of Gratitude, Fortitude, and Silver Linings by Jack Canfield. This is a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Another is the Borchard book mentioned previously.
- When faced with adversity, focus on the solution, not the problem.
- Practice the SEE strategy: Sleep sufficiently, eat healthy and exercise regularly. A healthy body and mind helps to maintain a positive attitude.
- Stop complaining. Will Bowen, pastor of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, wrote A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Enjoy the Life You Always Wanted. This book emerged from an experiment in which he asked his parishioners to form the habit of gratitude by not complaining for 21 consecutive days, which is the number of days some psychologists believe it takes to form a new habit.
How can children be encouraged to be grateful?
- First and foremost, be a positive role model for your children. Let your children hear you express words and show acts of gratitude.
- Let your child know how much you are grateful for him/her.
- Teach your children at a young age to write thank-you notes. When children are young, a picture can be a method to say thank you.
Adversities will invariably occur in our lives, but if gratitude is exercised, we can be happier, healthier and live a more fulfilled life. To cultivate gratitude, recognize that it is an intentional activity; we may not “feel” grateful at first. But, as Emmons suggests, our happiness is not entirely due to a preset disposition or based on the “good” things we receive in life. By practicing gratitude daily, steady progress can be made toward increased happiness and an improved sense of well-being.
- Borchard, T. J. (2009); Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes. Nashville, TN: Center Street.
- Bowen, W. (2007). A Complaint Free World: How to Stop complaining and Enjoy the Life You Always Wanted. New York: Doubleday Publishers.
- Canfield, J. L. (2009). Count Your Blessings: 101 Stories of Gratitude, fortitude, and Silver Linings. Cos Cob, CT: Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC.
- Emmons, R. (2007), Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Post, S. & Neimark, J. (2007), Why Good Things Happen to Good People. New York: Broadway Books.