Given that it’s the holidays, I thought it would be a great time to talk about gratitude. In a recent blog, I discussed how practicing gratitude is one of the most widely recognized methods for improving one’s overall well-being. According to Oprah Winfrey, “If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.” Not only does practicing gratitude make us feel better but it’s been scientifically proven to produce many physical and mental health benefits including stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more feelings of joy, and a greater sense of social connection.
What is gratitude?
But what is gratitude? According to Harvard Medical School, “ Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”
Dr. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and author of “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier“, describes gratitude as having three stages:
1.) Recognizing what we’re grateful for
2.) Acknowledging it
3.) Appreciating it
The good news is that there are many benefits to practicing gratitude and it is a skill that can be cultivated.
Unexpected benefits of gratitude
- Gratitude may stop you from overeating: According to Susan Peirce Thompson, a cognitive scientist who specializes in the psychology of eating, “Gratitude replenishes willpower”. Cultivating feelings of gratitude can boost your impulse control, helping you slow down and make better decisions. So, if you find yourself eating too much stuffing or pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner, try excusing yourself from the table to jot down a quick list of things you’re grateful for. This can help you clear and reset your mind.
- Gratitude can help you sleep: Numerous research studies have been conducted looking at the connection between gratitude and sleep. One such study involved researchers at the University of Manchester in England. Their study looked at over 400 adults of all ages – 40% with sleep disorders – who completed questionnaires that asked about gratitude, sleep, and pre-sleep thoughts. Gratitude was related to having more positive thoughts at bedtime which was associated with falling asleep faster and sleeping longer and better.
- Gratitude can make you more patient: Research from Northeastern University found that people who felt grateful for little, everyday things were more patient and better able to make sensible decisions, compared to those who didn’t feel very grateful on a daily basis. When 105 undergraduate students were asked to choose between receiving a small amount of money immediately or a larger sum in the future, the students who had shown more gratitude in earlier experiments were able to hold out for more cash.
Here are some fun exercises that you can practice with friends and family on Thanksgiving or anytime of year.
Going around the table: This is a great exercise for Thanksgiving. When setting the Thanksgiving table, place an index card and pen at each place setting. Each person writes the name of the person to their left at the top of the card, and then writes something about that person for which they are thankful. The card is passed to the right, so the next person can add to the list. Eventually, each card will make its way around the table. Take turns reading the thank-you cards out loud after the meal.
Photo scavenger hunt: Divide into small groups (2-4 people). Each group needs a digital camera or camera phone (you can also cut photos out of magazines). Use this list as a basis for the hunt (or you can make up your own). Determine time limits and boundaries for getting photos. Photos don’t have to be taken in order. Circle or check off ones completed. When time is up, gather and share photos.
Write a gratitude letter: Close your eyes and think of someone still alive who did something or said something that changed your life for the better and you never properly thanked. Then write a letter of gratitude (or email) being very specific about what they did for you and how it affected your life. Then deliver the letter (or send the email) in-person and read it to them. Even if you can’t deliver the letter in-person, not to worry. A study showed that even just writing the letter is enough to create a significant increase in gratitude and happiness.
Remember the “gratitude muscle” is like any other muscle in your body–it must be flexed periodically to remain strong.
Don’t reserve thankfulness for one Thursday in November. Make gratitude a yearlong habit!
Let me know below what comments you have on this topic and don’t forget to join me every Wednesday at 12pm CT on Facebook LIVE!