Let’s try a brief gratitude exercise: take a pen and write down ten things for which you are grateful. Be as specific as possible. Rather than writing, “my family,” identify something that a family member did this week that you appreciate. Give yourself one minute. Go!
Now read over the list slowly, savoring each item. How does it make you feel?
Psychological research on gratitude has been increasing exponentially. One of the top researchers in this area, Dr. Robert Emmons at UC Davis, conducted a series of studies where participants were randomly assigned to list either five “blessings” or five “burdens” per week for nine weeks.1
Blessings included commonplace events such as “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” or “the Rolling Stones.” Examples of burdens or hassles included, “hard to find parking,” “stupid people driving,” or “doing a favor for a friend who didn’t appreciate it.”
Participants in the gratitude group reported a number of benefits compared with the burdens group. They rated their life as a whole more favorably, had better expectations for the upcoming week, reported fewer symptoms of physical illness, and spent nearly 1.5 hours more time exercising per week.
In a similar study, participants were assigned to the same groups, but instead were asked to make the ratings daily for two weeks. Those in the gratitude condition reported feeling more positive (i.e. attentive, determined, energetic, excited, interested, joyful, strong) and were more likely to offer emotional support to others than those in the burdens group.
In a third study, a sample of low-income, inner-city, African-American participants with hypertension were instructed to call a “gratitude hotline” weekly where they recounted blessings to a researcher. Compared to a control condition, participants in the gratitude group had decreases in their systolic blood pressures, increases in gratitude, and decreases in hostility.2
Taken together, these studies point to the psychological, physical, and interpersonal effects of practicing gratitude. Cultivating gratitude is associated with feeling more alert, energetic, attentive, and more helpful and connected to others. It is also linked to getting more exercise and better sleep, and having overall better physical health.
What are some ways to practice gratitude in daily life?
Pick a gratitude buddy. Just like a workout buddy, a gratitude buddy can keep you motivated and on track with practicing gratitude. I have a friend that I email daily about things that I appreciate. The events that I identify tend to be commonplace. Today I might notice that the tree outside is in bloom, or that I enjoyed catching up with an old friend on the phone. Remember that you are sharpening your lens for recognizing the good in life. Like any other habit, it takes practice, so keep at it. Building a habit is like building a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it will be, and the more likely it will be there when you are feeling discouraged.
Savor gratitude daily. When you appreciate something, stop for 30 seconds and really let it sink in. Note any emotions you are feeling. Tune into how your body reacts when you are feeling gratitude. You might detect a sense of expansiveness in your chest; you might feel more relaxed. Use all your senses
to capture the moment. For example, if you are having a particularly enjoyable dinner, smell the food, take a close look at the colors in front of you, consider where the food came from, notice the textures in your mouth, and appreciate your taste buds coming alive. Don’t let this moment just slip by unnoticed. Try this practice three times a day for two weeks. Keep a journal and note your mood at the end of each day and see if you can detect any changes.
Take a different view. Gratitude is about cultivating an attitude or perspective of abundance and satisfaction. This can mean being present-focused, or noticing what you do have in your life at this
moment, rather than focusing on what you want or can’t get. For instance, you might say, “Right now I am full from lunch, have no pain in my body, and the sun is shining.” It may also mean giving others credit for blessings in your life. For instance, I may consider all of the factors that allow me to have money for lunch, such as my parents’ support, having access to education, the mentors I have had, or my perseverance.
Notice what you take for granted. The other day, I was leaving the gym and noticed a young man in a wheelchair. I started considering how my life would be different if I were unable to walk. I was amazed by all the changes I would have to make in my life; I would no longer be able to live in my apartment, walk to work, get inside my work building, the list went on. Try this thought experiment with just one aspect of your life. Think through how your life would change if you did not have something that you take for granted, and notice any thoughts or emotions that arise.
I want to caution that I am not advocating a Pollyanna approach to life. It is important to recognize that stressful events happen, and that difficult emotions like worry, envy, and sadness naturally arise and should be experienced. However, there may be times when you find yourself mired in unhappiness or simply have the feeling that you could be happier on a daily basis. This is where a gratitude practice comes in.
I once heard a meditation teacher compare making life changes to turning a ship in the ocean. It doesn’t happen easily or quickly. It takes intention, effort, and practice, but if you look closely and keep at it, you may be able to see the change starting to occur.
Dr. Vickie Chang is a psychologist specializing in positive psychology and mindfulness. She offers individual therapy with adolescents and adults in Menlo Park. She also conducts research at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. She can be reached at vickieychang@ gmail.com, (650) 351-1305, or via her website: www.vickiechangphd.com.
1 Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
2 Shipon, R.W. (2007). Gratitude: Effect on perspectives and blood pressure of inner-city African-American hypertensive patients. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. )