Gratitude makes us happier and more resilient: 3 practices to try every day
#6 in 7 research-backed ways to grow more resilient every day.
It’s often thought that if you’re happy *then* you’ll be grateful, but studies have shown that, actually, causation likely goes the other way: if you’re grateful, you’ll be happier.
And, you’ll also be more resilient to the inevitable challenges life throws your way.
Dealing with change, setbacks, loss, and grief — and global pandemics , it turns out— is an inevitable part of life. Resilience is the psychological strength that allows some people to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happens.
Fortunately, a person is not “resilient” or “not resilient”: you can always grow your resilience because resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait of individuals.
In times of extreme collective uncertainty and adversity, like that posed by our new COVID-19 reality, it’s particularly important we all practice resilience daily so we can maintain our health, compassion, grace, and equanimity in the face of change and fear.
This is #6 in a series of 10 research-backed ways to grow more resilient.
Gratitude and Its Benefits
The Latin root word for gratitude is gratia, which means graciousness, grace, or gratefulness depending on how it’s used.
Fundamentally, gratitude is about appreciating what *IS*, being thankful for what you do have and experience, rather than focusing on what is (supposedly) lacking. It doesn’t mean ignoring or repressing the negative, but rather knowing that there is always something for which we can be thankful, even in our darkest hours.
Along with hope and optimism, gratitude is another important antidote to fear: the way our brains work, it’s impossible to be both grateful and fearful at the same time.
Practicing gratitude has a wealth of other benefits — it improves psychological well-being, helps to diminish depression and anxiety (including death anxiety?!), move us out of “amygdala hijack”, increases trust in our fellow citizens, and increases self-esteem and life satisfaction.
Gratitude in relationships with others also helps promote connection and community (another key factor of resilience), by fueling spirals of positive, mutually responsive behaviors — scientists call this “find-remind-bind.” We see things we appreciate (find), remind ourselves and express them to others (remind), and this creates stronger bonds (bind). It’s true at work too — grateful bosses are more likely successful, and teams that practice gratitude have higher work engagement, job satisfaction, trust and perform better. A recent study found that 79% of people who quit their job cited ‘lack of appreciation’ as the key reason.
We feel closer to one another when what we do is appreciated, *and* when we notice and express gratitude for what others do for us.
Noticing our gratitude is important for our own well-being, and expressing our gratitude to others is extremely important for the strength of our relationships. Yet most of us don’t practice it frequently. A recent national survey found that while 90% of people describe themselves as grateful for their family and closest friends, only 52% of women and 44% percent of men express that gratitude on a regular basis.
Gratitude, like all aspects of resilience, is not something you have or don’t have — it’s a skill that we can get better at with practice.
So what are some ways to cultivate gratitude in our lives?
Practices to Cultivate Gratitude
1. Say Thank You.
This is the first practice. Every time you notice something someone does for you, or that you appreciate, say it.
And if you want to say thank you WELL, in a way that really builds trust and healthy relationships, focus on the benefactor and their good qualities, as well as on the benefit. Social Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson notes that, done well, expressing appreciation becomes a kind gesture in return — a way of showing them you see their good qualities, as well as the action.
Rather than saying, “thanks for mowing the lawn,” you can say, “You’re the best; thanks for mowing. When the lawn looks good I feel so much more happy driving up to the house. Thank you.” If someone gets you a coffee at work, “You’re so thoughtful. This coffee is exactly what I needed to feel more energized for my presentation — thank you.”
2. Write Thank Yous
Writing and sending thank you notes have been shown to increase both well-being and our relationships. Three ways to bring writing thank-yous into your life:
· Daily practice: Start every morning by writing a text, email, or quick note to someone for something you appreciate about them, or appreciate that they did. If you want to send five per week on a weekly basis instead of daily, that works too. The cadence doesn’t matter as much, just that it’s frequent and ritualized so that you’re consistently looking for and expressing things you’re grateful for.
· Every Gift: Write an actual hard-copy thank you note and send it for every gift, and for particularly meaningful acts of kindness.
· “The Gratitude Visit”: Identify someone who did or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone you could meet face to face (or via video call!), preferably. The letter should be concrete, include details, and about three hundred words (half of a page). Be specific about what the person did and how it affected your life. Mention what you are doing now and how you still remember what they did. Once you’ve written the testimonial, call the person and say you’d like to meet, but be vague about the purpose. Then, take your time reading the letter to the person. Notice their reactions. If they interrupt, say you really want them to listen until you’re done. Then, afterwards, you can discuss the content and feelings.
(Developed by Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology), the gratitude visit has been found to increase happiness even a month after doing!)
3. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Take a moment every single day, or once per week, to write down three things you’re grateful for in your life. Express why and how it makes you feel. If you’re in a space where gratitude feels too much (I have been there), just notice something you can appreciate, something lovely you noticed, a kindness, or something you enjoyed. Similar to “hunt the good stuff”, it turns out (verified now by neuroscience research) that we can train our brain to feel more gratitude simply by taking the time to notice when we do.
GreaterGood article on How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain looks at the underlying neuroscience research for how gratitude works to make us happier. Barbara Fredrickson’s book Love 2.0 and Martin Seligman’s Flourish both include great ideas for gratitude practices, amongst other positive psychology practices.
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