Gratitude has become a bit of a buzzword in 2018, with beautifully-designed journals presented as the perfect Christmas gifts and #gratitude turning up 15m results on Instagram alone.
But with seemingly ever-busier lives and precious little time, energy or enthusiasm to spare, is it really something we should make space for? What kind of benefits could one expect? And what do you have to do to reap the benefits?
The gratitude tradition
On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, traditionally giving thanks for the harvest. There are similar customs in Canada, Germany and Japan.
More recently, many American families focus on sharing a meal with their nearest and dearest along with sharing with one another something they are truly thankful for.
In my coaching work we do a similar exercise, sharing even the smallest thing that we’re grateful for. It’s far too easy to concentrate on what would make life perfect, what’s missing, what’s difficult, instead of stopping to remind ourselves of what we can appreciate in our lives. But I find the real difference comes when people dig deeper to find something which truly matters to them.
It’s not an easy exercise though. We are typically British about the whole thing because to share what we are truly grateful for means we have to be willing to be vulnerable. But mining down past the surface issues is what really reveals the gold; the things that, if we truly are grateful for them, will mean we can harness some of the benefits of gratitude.
What the science says about gratitude
There have been decades of studies on the practice of gratitude. Scientifically proven results of regularly being grateful include:
- Being happier, and less prone to depression
- Fewer aches and pains
- Enhanced empathy
- Sleeping better and for longer – achieved with just 15 minutes of gratitude before you turn off the light
- Improved resilience – as evidenced by a study of people impacted by 9/11
- Improved mental strength – demonstrated by a lower incidence of PTSD in Vietnam War veterans
All of the research agrees that to reap the benefits, you need to practice gratitude regularly and meaningfully. The benefits seem to be linked to a mindset shift because you’re focusing on the good things, what went well, and reprogramming the brain to look for positives, rather than negatives.
Predominantly the way we learn as children is by the negative – don’t put your hand in the fire, don’t touch that plug socket. This conditions the brain to hang on to negatives much more easily. They are like Velcro, sticking to everything even when we don’t want them to.
The opposite is true of positives, which are more like Teflon: sliding off us as our brain easily hangs on to the negatives, even though there may be many more positives. Gratitude can help us switch our mindset, more easily accepting and hanging on to the positives.
Making it easy
There are easy wins in the gratitude stakes which can not only have a positive impact on you, but on those around you too.
Random acts of kindness have been proven to increase happiness in the short-term, with five random acts of kindness in a week improving your happiness for up to three months. So smile at people, let the other car out at the junction, hold the door for someone. You will get a glow, and the other person will likely benefit too.
Celebrating achievements is another thing that is all too easy to overlook. In my law practice I was driven by putting out fires, fixing what needed fixing, succeeding by dealing with whatever impending issue presented itself. What I didn’t do was take time out to congratulate myself on a job well done. Instead, I rushed onwards, looking for the next problem that needed my attention. In hindsight, taking a small amount of time to celebrate would have been rather more enjoyable, and would have left me feeling more satisfied with a job well done.
When it feels too hard to get started
If the barrier to you getting started with practising gratitude is not quite knowing what to be grateful for, make it easy by choosing ready-prepared affirmations such as:
- I’m grateful for my home
- I’m grateful for my family
- I’m grateful that I’m healthy
Choose your own affirmation and repeat it 10 times, becoming more and more powerful as you do so. Once you’re in the habit of expressing gratitude it’s highly likely you will find other things to be grateful for.
Being genuinely grateful improves emotional resilience – because you are concentrating on the small stuff and what you do have, as opposed to what you don’t. It’s a key to our own happiness. Put simply, when we’re grateful we feel uplifted. Self-esteem is raised. We stop comparing ourselves with others and feel less impacted by what we believe other people are achieving. Expressing thanks has simple social, mental and physical benefits. We feel good about ourselves and the people around us.