Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
ATLANTA — If you really think about it, so many of us should be in a perpetual state of gratitude.
Which of these do you have going for you right now? Family. Friends. Love. Health. Freedom from war and natural disaster. Imagination. Community. A roof over our heads. Common decency. Hope. Opportunity. Memories. Financial stability. Favorite places. Days off work. Good weather. The golden age of television. Books. Music. Ice cream. Weekends. A friendly exchange. Something good that happened today. Something bad that didn't happen today.
You may not have everything you want (or even need) on my list or yours, but that probably still leaves buckets — nay, container ships — full of tangible and conceptual items for which to be grateful. Things can always be better, but they can always be worse. It often depends on how you look at that proverbial glass of water.
To get in better touch with gratefulness — and get the health benefits of doing so — the trick is to find easy ways to count blessings more often than, say, over an annual turkey dinner. Keep your thankfulness boiling on the front burner of your mind, and you will increase your general appreciation of life.
Try to be more grateful for the small, mundane things that give you joy and meaning, as well as the big ones. Acknowledging just a handful each day will benefit you, and there are ways to make that a habit.
Grateful = healthful
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of displays of gratitude is that they are closely tied to increased feelings of happiness — for both the givers and the receivers.
In this week's episode of CNN podcast Chasing Life, host Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Christina Costa, a teacher and doctoral student at the University of Michigan who has studied neuroscience and psychology. She explained how you can see gratefulness on brain scans. The feeling lights up the "feel-good" neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin, which Gupta pointed out also decrease hormones like cortisol, associated with stress.
"The neurotransmitter reactions are pretty immediate," Costa said. "It is hard to feel bad when you are focusing on someone that you are so grateful for, something that changed your life or something that is going really well today."
It is hard to feel bad when you are focusing on someone that you are so grateful for, something that changed your life or something that is going really well today.
–Christina Costa, University of Michigan
Resilience, including the ability to cope with stress and trauma, is also correlated with gratitude. Studies have shown that counting blessings was a factor in managing post-traumatic stress for Vietnam War veterans and an effective coping strategy for many after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other research shows that the more grateful you are, the more you are likely to exhibit patience and self-control. It can even be good for marriages and relationships: Couples good at exhibiting thankfulness tend to be "more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time." Our best selves, it seems, are our most grateful selves.
Studies have shown that gratitude can indirectly influence physical health, as well. "Gratitude strengthens your immune system and helps you experience less pain," Costa said in the Chasing Life podcast.
Those who have "dispositional gratitude" — defined by one study as "part of a wider life orientation toward noticing and appreciating the positive in the world" — are more likely to report good physical health, a propensity for healthy activities and willingness to seek help for health concerns.
In another study, New York teenagers who rated as the most grateful in their class — defined by "having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives" — were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The benefits of having more gratitude also correlated with benefits to the heart among patients who had experienced heart failure.
Being grateful can even get you a better night's sleep. According to one study involving college students who instituted various methods for increasing gratitude, such as a gratitude journal, they worried less at bedtime and slept longer and better. In another study, adults in the United Kingdom (40% of whom had sleep disorders), reported that thinking about what they are grateful for at night led to falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer.
How to up your GQ (gratefulness quotient)
I'm currently conducting two completely unscientific thankfulness-boosting experiments. For nearly two years, I've been keeping a gratitude journal. And for the last five years or so, my family has engaged in a dinnertime ritual called "Roses, Thorns & Buds" that surfaces the same details.
A lot has been written about these and other thankfulness experiments, and it should be noted that there are no rules or even standards that govern them. We're in very, very soft science territory here. But reliable research does show that whatever you do to increase gratitude pays off, so it's worth it to find what is easy, enjoyable and effective for you.
A gratitude journal need not be any more complicated than keeping a notebook by your bed and starting a nightly habit of jotting down who and what you were grateful for that day. Journaling was the standard method for some of the studies cited above, so this is a simple but effective option.
I'm coming up on two years of trying this one, and I added a layer you may want to consider. After one year, I took the time to total up all the mentions. My wife and children were, predictably, at the top, reminding me not to take them for granted. But I was surprised to see that coworkers, neighbors and a city park all ranked highly. It was useful for me to review in that way because when I see those people, I have this added layer of positive feeling about them at the forefront of my mind. It's hard to get annoyed by someone when you think, "I'm so often grateful for that person."
It was fun to play with the data, too. By category, "family" was the clear winner (1,011 instances) for me, followed by "places" (269 instances, with coffee shops being the biggest subcategory, "friends" (259), CNN "coworkers" (197) and "experiences" (133). Also, "Star Wars" (11) beat both beer (10) and books (8). It will be interesting to compare second-year totals against these. All of it is getting me closer to understanding and remembering what I'm most grateful for.
Roses, Thorns and Buds (or RTB, among its devotees) has been part of so many family dinners since my older daughter was 4 years old that I've forgotten where we first heard about it. It's quite simple: Everyone at the table takes turns sharing "roses," which are something positive and happy-making about their day; "thorns," which are the opposite of that; and "buds" for something we're looking forward to and we anticipate will be a rose. Sometimes, the family meal and sharing these things itself is a rose.
Granted, the "thorn" doesn't necessarily increase gratitude — though it's still useful from a family discussion, empathy and problem-solving perspective. And if you can fix a problem, a rose may grow in that thorn's place.
Here are our unscientific findings: Each time, we find that we have many roses and buds and usually only one thorn to share.
Friends have told us about effective variations on this technique, so one size doesn't fit all. If the metaphor is too flowery for you, pick another. Home runs, strikeouts and on deck? The important thing is to connect to the thankfulness in this way, whether you do it most evenings or on the occasional weekend. It's also an easy way for kids to get into a thankfulness habit themselves.
Happiness jars, a strategy popularized by "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert, is something of a hybrid of gratitude journal and RTB. The idea is to write down on a slip of paper the happiest moment of the day and drop it in a jar. The advantage of doing it this way is that in moments of unhappiness, you can reach into the jar and be reminded of those moments, perhaps becoming grateful for them anew. Gilbert was struck by how many of her fans shared photos of their decorated happiness jars (see Pinterest if you need inspiration) and by how her happiest moments are "generally really common and quiet and unremarkable."
And there are other experiments to try. You could set alarms or reminders on your phone to pause and think of something you are grateful for at different times of the day: Mornings help set the tone of the day, and reflecting while at work can be particularly useful. You can then record them on a gratitude journaling app.
Or you could just focus on the simple act of saying thank you, and meaning it, more frequently. Writing letters of thanks (or emails if you want to be faster and more frequent) to those for whom you are grateful is worth doing with some regularity. You can also express gratitude with gifts, flowers and favors. Or simply make a list of all the things we take for granted but would be so unhappy to lose, such as job security, health, seeing loved ones. Review that list every week or so.
Whatever way you start infusing your life with more moments of gratitude, in the short and long term, you will be grateful that you did.