The Small Miracle of Gratitude

“There’s practically nothing it can’t do.”

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Gratitude is such a light-sounding word for an emotion that’s so powerful. But there’s a reason why it shares the same Latin root — gratus — as the word grace. Living in a state of gratitude is our gateway to grace — and a vital part of our well-being.

We live in a stressful world, feeling perpetually behind, so connected to the entire world through our technology that we’re disconnected from each other and from ourselves. Rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. But there is an antidote to all of this: gratitude. When you find yourself in that stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, gratitude is the brake lever. Gratitude helps us reset and gives us perspective. We think of gratitude as a coda, an add-on, something that comes at the end. But in fact, gratitude is the beginning. And when we practice it, it sets off a chain reaction of positive benefits.

It’s something the ancients certainly knew. Cicero wrote that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” This wisdom has since been confirmed by a mountain of hard science, as the list of what gratitude can do is seemingly endless.

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the positive psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the beneficial impact of a single gratitude exercise — in this case, writing and delivering a letter of thanks to someone — could last for an entire month. Gratitude has also been found to improve sleep and lower levels of stress and depression. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine found that gratitude interventions could improve heart health by lowering levels of inflammation.

We see that gratitude can work its magic in the workplace, as well. Researchers from Wharton found that gratitude in the form of managers saying thank you to their employees for their efforts motivated them to work harder. And the objects of our gratitude don’t have to be big or life-changing. It can be gratitude for your morning cafe latte, or a random encounter with a person who made you smile that day, or a piece of nature on the way to work. Or it can be simply gratitude for being alive. A fascinating study by researchers from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago had participants draft letters of gratitude and then try to predict how happy, surprised or awkward the recipients would feel. What they found was that people greatly underestimated how happy the recipients felt, and overestimated the awkwardness. “Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own — and others’ — well-being,” the authors concluded.

If you always feel like you’re short on time, try working gratitude into your life through habit-stacking. This is the proven practice of creating a new habit by “stacking” it onto an existing habit. An easy method: Think of three things you’re grateful for while brushing your teeth or during some other part of your morning or evening routine. It’s a way of adding meaning to mundane moments — and without having to find any more time in your day. 

But however you do it, just do it — find a way to give yourself the gift of gratitude. It’s a small miracle and it’s available to all of us, all the time. And the only eligibility requirement is being alive. As the saying goes, it’s not happy people who are thankful, it’s grateful people who are happy.

Published on
August 16, 2019
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