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Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes regularly for Contemporary Pediatrics, Managed Healthcare Executive, and Medical Economics.
This is the time of year where we reflect on what we are thankful for. But gratitude doesn’t always come easily. Learn how you can practice gratitude in your daily life.
“Thanks.” It’s a word most of us say many times a day in passing. But it’s a powerful word, and carries an important message.
This time of year, we often reflect on what we are thankful for and express gratitude for the good things in our lives. It’s a process that has a science behind it and can benefit us year-round.
Not just a word to be thrown around casually, gratitude has been scientifically shown to provide benefit in many ways. Research has shown that gratitude can help fight depression and elicit positive feelings. It helps us appreciate experiences over material goods, and activates reward centers in the brain as well as increasing our ability to bond with others and reduce stress.
The word gratitude itself, derived from the Latin gratia means grace and gratefulness, and is a perfect expression of the feelings it generates.
Psychologists have studied the power of gratitude, specifically Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. They conducted one experiment where they tasked one group with writing about what they were grateful for during the previous week. A second group journaled their daily irritations. A third group wrote about all the experiences-positive or negative-that had an impact on them. Ten weeks later, the first group expressed optimism and positivity about their lives, and were healthier and happier than the other groups.
Other studies have also found associations between gratitude and increased well-being in all aspects of life. From managers offering thanks to workers who then became more productive to couples who thank each other developing better relationships with each other and the outside work, even Harvard researchers have recognized the power of thanks and gratitude.
Emmons, author of the book “10 Ways to Become More Grateful,” says that gratitude has endless benefits for the body and soul-stronger immunity, lower blood pressure, better sleep, more joy and optimism, deeper relationships, and less isolation or loneliness.
Gratitude allows us to celebrate and enjoy our present state and appreciate the value of the things in our lives. This magnifies positive emotions, which otherwise might wear out quickly. Secondly, more gratitude helps to fight off negative, toxic emotions and can reduce the frequency and duration of depression. Grateful people are more resistant to stress, he says, and have a higher sense of self-worth.
Psychologist Karen Young and author of the popular blog Hey Sigmund says grateful people live happier, healthier lives, are more generous and compassionate, and have a greater capacity for joy and positivity. Gratitude isn’t always easy, though. In today’s world, we are inundated with negativity from politics, social media, and a general disconnectedness in society. To overcome this, Young says gratitude must be deliberate and practiced.
Here are some tips for cultivating gratitude and practicing thankfulness.
• Three times a day. Write down three things that happened in the last 24 hours a day. These can be as simple as sunshine, a hot cup of coffee, or a home to return to. Do this for 21 days. Completing this task for the prescribed amount of time will help train your brain to think more positively, and seek out the positives in the world rather than focusing on negatives.
• Reflect on a big thing. Positive experiences have a major impact on us. When something happens than brings you extra joy or happiness, take some time to reflect on it. Spend two minutes writing down every detail of the experience. Your brain will remember this experience as particularly important, and Young says this helps to deepen the imprint of this experience on your brain.
• Be thankful for you. The benefits of writing down positive experiences has been covered in other exercises, but don’t forget to thank you! Write a thank you letter to yourself or keep a journal. Pick a daily thing to be thankful for, or write down a few each week.
• Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is important for cultivating gratitude. Take time to reflect on your day and break it down mentally. Pray or meditate to focus on the moment you are in without judgment.
• Keep it fresh. While we may be thankful for some things every day-a good job, the love of family, a warm bed-it’s important to seek out new things, even small things, to be thankful for in our daily lives. Happify.com spells it out perfectly.
“While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing ‘I’m grateful for my family’ week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments,” suggests Happify.com’s Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, a psychologist and resilience coach. Be specific and look deeper into your daily experiences to seek out blessings. “Be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice. Make a game out of noticing new things each day.”
• Put a lid on it. Gratitude jars are a fun twist on gratitude journaling. Write a brief note about a positive experience and put it in a jar. On New Year’s Eve or some other occasion, open the jar and revisit your positive experiences. This could even be a family activity and trains your brain to be on the lookout for experiences to add to your jar.
• Turn the negative to positive. Not everything in life is sunshine and lollipops, but a lot of our negativity comes from how we see things. Try turning negative experiences into a positive just by thinking about them in a new way. Instead of thinking about how cold your office is, focus instead on the beautiful view outside your window.
• Close the complaint department. Vow to yourself not to complain, criticize or gossip for one week. Spend less energy on negative thoughts, and focus on how you can learn and grow from bad situations.
• Outsource it. When all else fails, explore gratitude with the help of others. There are a number on online resource and apps that can help you practice thankfulness and gratitude like Gratitude Revealed, Grateful: A Gratitude Journal,The Gratitude Jar, and Red Stamp.