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The Power of Gratitude

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

On a recent walk home from the supermarket, I felt incredibly irritable, to say the least. I was hot and sweaty, carrying way too many groceries, and regretting my decision to not pay the extra $5 for delivery. I felt sorry for myself, dragging my heavy food through the crowded, dirty, and impossibly noisy streets of the city. And as I readjusted my bags for the tenth time, I realized what I really needed was a readjustment of my attitude. So I placed my groceries on the sidewalk for a minute and decided to focus on gratitude.

What could I possibly feel grateful for at that moment? The groceries, for starters. How fortunate am I to be able to afford and so easily procure all of this delicious food? Unlike many Americans, I have never suffered from food insecurity, a fact I often take for granted. Next I focused on gratitude towards my body, which was able to physically endure the 15-minute walk, carrying several pounds on each arm. Finally, I focused on how grateful I was to be bringing this food home to my family, who would enjoy cooking and eating it together.

This one minute exercise of gratitude had a profound effect on the remainder of my walk. Although the bags of food obviously didn’t change, they suddenly felt lighter. My mood lifted and the look on my face visibly shifted. Simply focusing on gratitude significantly improved my physical and mental state.

It is no surprise that I felt so much better after counting my blessings. A wealth of research supports the idea that gratitude significantly improves mood and reduces anxiety. In a study by Emmons and McCollough, research participants who were assigned to write daily about moments of gratitude were shown to be more optimistic, less depressed and had fewer visits to physicians than those assigned to write about moments of aggravation. Similarly, Seligman showed that participants who were asked to write personal letters of gratitude to others immediately exhibited a significant increase in happiness scores. Additionally, brain studies have demonstrated how gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, the chemicals that regulate our emotions and determine how we respond to stress.

With so much research backing up the benefits of gratitude, it makes sense to find ways you can incorporate it into your daily life. But it’s not enough to just be grateful. One has to act grateful. That means actively participating in gratitude practices as often as possible. To get you started, here are a few ideas:

Write it Down. Yes, with a pen.

Keep a journal or notebook on your bedside table or desk and record moments of gratitude. The key to this practice is to be as specific as possible. Instead of writing “my family” write “laughing with my family while watching our favorite tv show.” Instead of “my health” write “being able to walk up five flights of stairs without feeling winded.” Instead of “nature” write “seeing the cherry blossoms bloom near the Central Park reservoir.” And consider writing with pen and paper. This will allow you to be less distracted when recording your moments of gratitude and will also allow you to see a visual of your journal being filled up with entries. If you loathe doing things analog, no worries; you can certainly do this exercise on your phone or desktop. Just try to keep it in a place that is easily accessible--perhaps the Notes section of your phone--so that you can quickly record things in real time. Having this one place on your device will also allow you to see your moments of gratitude accumulate over time.

Fill a Jar

Consider leaving a jar, scraps of paper, and a pen on your nightstand or desk. Similar to writing in a journal, you can record moments of gratitude and then drop them in your jar. It’s fun watching it fill up! Some families keep their jar in the kitchen for anyone to deposit a slip of paper. To more actively engage in sharing, you might want to pass the jar around the dinner table, encouraging family members to share their moments of gratitude.

Count Your Blessings with a Friend

During the depths of Covid (think April/May of 2020) my best friend and I decided to text each other daily with something for which we felt grateful. These texts included “a strong cup of coffee,” “the way the rain drips down my window,” “a 30 minute video yoga class,” “laughing at an old ‘Office’ episode.” It was important that we engaged in this back-and-forth exchange because we served as accountability partners for one another. I knew I had to find something to share, despite the feelings of anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty I was experiencing at that time. It also provided us with some laughter, for sometimes the things we shared were so minute-- a reminder that even the small stuff can lift your mood and should not go unnoticed. So find a friend and start sharing your daily moments of gratitude.

Listen to your mother and write thank you notes.

Remember having to write thank you notes every year after your birthday party? As much as you might have hated this task (I get it!), it turns out your mother was right in making you do this. There is something profound about saying “thank you” to another person. And not just for gifts and material things. When we thank others for their favors, acts of kindness, and their emotional support, we are not only acknowledging to them our appreciation, we are also stimulating positive feelings in ourselves. Researchers at Kent State found that writing thank you notes to others improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings and reduced symptoms of depression. And while penning a letter on beautiful stationery is lovely, you can also feel free to email or even text your thank yous. Whatever mode of communication you use, you are certain to feel the psychological benefits of expressing your gratitude.

Grow a Tree.

If you have young kids, you might want to consider creating a gratitude tree to encourage your children to count their blessings. Help them cut out the trunk and branches of a tree using butcher paper and hang it on a wall for all to see. Whenever a family member feels grateful for something, they can write it on a paper or felt leaf and attach it to the tree using tape, velcro, or poster putty. If you’re feeling really artsy, consult Pinterest for creative ideas. You and your children will love seeing your tree blossom with expressions of gratitude!

Finding the gratitude practice that works best for you might take some time. Experiment with the suggestions above or find your own creative way to count your blessings. Focusing on what you have, rather than what you are lacking, will have a profound effect on your overall mindset and wellbeing.

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