Gratitude is an immensely powerful force that we can use to expand our happiness, create loving relationships, and even improve our health.
Gratitude is an often under-appreciated and overlooked human emotion. It is the ability to appreciate what one has, rather than focusing on what one wants. It is often associated with altruistic lifestyles and religious dedication; something impractical for people living in a modern, and western society.
In western societies specifically, people seem to constantly be in a rat race to the top by forever chasing happiness through wealth and material goods. We seem to have essentially forgotten the importance gratitude can have on us and society as a whole.
Science has proven over and over again accumulation of material objects and money do not bring us happiness. True internal happiness comes from working on positive personal attributes such as optimism, forgiveness, altruism, and of course happiness itself. These characteristics make us stronger in the face of difficult situations, make us have deeper interpersonal connections to others, and overall increase our happiness levels. Gratitude, especially, has been proven to have potently positive effects on our both minds and bodies, but just like a physical workout, gratitude requires daily practice to guarantee long-term results.
What is Gratitude?
According to Angeles Arrien, author of Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life, gratitude is, “the recognition of the unearned increments of value in one’s experience—the acknowledgment of the positive things that come our way that we did not actively work toward or ask for.” However, as she goes on to explain, just because we sometimes feel grateful for a gift received or a kind gesture, it is not an automatically generated response.
Just as we can choose to be grateful, many of us too often choose to be ungrateful. Therefore, it is important to start practicing gratitude daily in order to strengthen these specific pathways in our brain, which over time will lead us to feel gratitude in the face of every situation thrown our way.
Everyday Benefits of Gratitude
Being truly grateful has wide-reaching and long-term effects, both on the individual and on a community at large. It has been found to positively influence people culturally, spiritually, psychologically, physically and even financially.
Some of the profound effects of gratitude on our emotional well being are its ability to reduce stress, increase self-esteem, increase both emotional and academic intelligence, and increase energy. Practicing gratitude has also been found to reduce the severity and length of depression in some people. This is assumed to be because it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to feel both grateful and envious at the same time. Being grateful essentially blocks your mind’s ability to feel other more negative emotions.
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In one study, people who practiced gratitude exercises were also able to accomplish goals more quickly than those practicing various other exercises. This included academic goals, health, and body goals, as well as interpersonal ones. On top of this study, other research on a group of young adults practicing gratitude exercises has shown that it can increase energy levels, determination, alertness, and enthusiasm.
Perhaps due to its effect on overall happiness and optimism, being grateful has an influential effect on general health too. It allows us to live longer, sleep better, get sick less often, and inspires us to get more exercise on a daily basis. It truly is like a miracle drug, that costs nothing and only has positive effects on all aspects of your life.
How To Cultivate Gratitude in Your Life
The good news, beyond that fact that practicing gratitude benefits yourself and others around you, is that it doesn’t require any special equipment and requires no financial investment. It is easily incorporated into your daily routine starting today.
Firstly, nearly all leaders in the gratitude field recommend starting with a gratitude journal. Every night before bed, focus on the day’s experiences in order to choose 3-5 to write down in your journal. Some people also recommend expanding detail on a specific experience in order to deepen your appreciation. This can also include a daily exercise of writing down positive attributes you find in yourself after all being grateful for your own characteristics will help to strengthen them.
Meditation is an important second step to cultivating gratitude. Breathe deeply for a few moments to better relax and ground yourself prior to opening yourself up to feeling gratitude. Perhaps you might choose to focus on one of the experiences you described in your journal, or on another memory which comes to mind when you focus on thoughts of gratitude.
Expand the story in your mind, really let the positive feelings sink in, and focus on holding those feelings for as long as possible. Even a 5-minute meditation of this nature can have long-lasting effects for you and your relationships.
Bring your practice to being with others by vocalizing your appreciation on a daily basis. Thank someone for their contributions to a project at work, express your appreciation for a meal well made or simply smile at a stranger. As your ability to show gratitude strengthens, you can then start to focus on more difficult people and situations. Although it may be easy to thank someone you get along with at work for a job well done, it is significantly more difficult to be grateful towards those coworkers who rub you the wrong way.
Nevertheless, expressing gratitude in these difficult situations can have even more trickle-down effects than during the easier situations. To be able to appreciate those we do not get along with can have powerful effects on that relationship but throughout social environment as well.
On a daily basis try to pay attention to your senses — everything you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and maybe even tasting — and see how many things you can find to feel grateful for. This is a powerful way to shift your mood and open to the flow of abundance that always surrounds you.