As the month of November ushers in the holiday season, there’s a sharpened focus on gratitude (though we were and always will be grateful for Halloween candy). People make an extra effort to give thanks for their good fortune, be it their health, a job they love, friends and family they can count on, a personal race record, and/or uninterrupted Netflix time — it can really be anything; gratitude knows no bounds. This often inspires others to give back to those who are less fortunate. And if you didn’t already know, it makes for greater physical and psychological health.
15 Years Of Gratitude
Robert Emmons is the leading expert on gratitude, having spent over 10 years studying the effects it has on physical health (stronger immune system and sleep time), psychological well-being (increased positive emotions), and on our relationships with others (more helpful, less lonely). To him, gratitude breaks down into two components.
“First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received,” he said in an essay published by the Greater Good Science Center based at the University of California-Berkeley. “This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life. “
Emmons’ second component involves “figuring out where that goodness comes from.” It’s not so much appreciating our own positive traits, but it involves what he calls a “humble dependence” on others. When you think about it, a lot of what we’re grateful is by the hand of others. Interpersonal relationships and rich experiences often afford us the goodness we’re grateful for in the first place.
Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, and she's been working alongside Emmons to expand the science of gratitude. "My background is in neuroscience, and it's exciting for me to see a growing body of literature that shows gratitude has so much capacity to shape the brain once invested in practice," she told Medical Daily.
Simon-Thomas said gratitude is a fairly recent idea in the lens of scientific studies. Initial studies relied on self-reported measures, in which participants reported greater well-being. This always left researchers wondering if there were physiological benefits, too. And as Simon-Thomas has seen, there are. "In studies, after eight weeks of practice, brain scans of individuals who practice gratitude have stronger brain structure for social cognition and empathy, as well as the part of the brain that processes reward," she said.
Simon-Thomas has also seen gratitude eases symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But more notably, gratitude helps a person with PTSD recover quicker. Speaking of stress, writing thank you notes has been shown to ease stress, reduce depressive symptoms, and encourage people to be more mindful of what makes them happy (just ask Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon), as well as foster better relationships. A study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services found businesses practicing gratitude generate loyal customers, while a study presented at an American Psychological Association convention found gratitude makes a person less materialistic, thus kinder to the environment.
All these findings, Simon-Thomas said, warrant folding gratitude into lesson plans. "There's a lot of value of strengthening gratitude early on versus building it back as an adult," she said. "It's a skill."
A gratitude journal is exactly how it sounds: a journal filled with everything you’re grateful for. It's also the number one recommendation for those looking to cultivate more gratitude.
“This practice [once or twice a week] works, I think, because it consciously, intentionally focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts,” Emmons said. “It helps guard against taking things for granted; instead, we see gifts in life as new and exciting. I do believe that people who live a life of pervasive thankfulness really do experience life differently than people who cheat themselves out of life by not feeling grateful.”
However, this wasn’t the case for Idealist.org editor Allison Jones. In a story for Fast Company, she explained how keeping a journal reduced gratitude from something she wanted to actively feel to an emotion she felt pressured to document. In fairness, she chalked it up a few different reasons, namely journaling too much (it’s possible to burn out on gratitude).
“Of course, none of this means that gratitude is not a good idea,” Jones wrote. “It just means that journaling it wasn’t good for me, given my needs.”
An important takeaway from Jones' story is that a negative experience with a recommended approach to any practice, not just gratitude, does not negate its benefits as a whole. It just means a person needs to spend time figuring out the ways they feel most comfortable, and most fulfilled by, practicing gratitude. That sounds like a cop out, but it's the only way gratitude can prove meaningful for each and every one of you.
"It’s the case for any practice," Simon-Thomas said. "If you’re going to the gym and meeting with a personal trainer, the trainer is going to take into account your physical fitness, your gym history, your personality, and factor all the information into the program he or she will create to help you reach your goal."
How To Practice Gratitude
Journaling is a great start, but there are two things to consider. One, entries (as Jones herself noticed) should be limited to a couple times a week, not everyday. Two, entries are more sustainable if they focus on interpersonal relationships rather than physical objects. "An iPhone 6, double-headed shower, and wine cellar are really pleasurable...if you’re lucky to live that life," Simon-Thomas said. "But material possessions tire you out quicker, whereas pilot data from the [Greater Good] center shows rich, interpersonal connections and experiences make more of an impact."
There are also gratitude letters, which are not unlike thank you notes. Simon-Thomas suggested writing a descriptive, emotional 1-2 page letter to someone you feel you haven't really thanked, and read it aloud. It's way more intense than a journal, but it's also way more powerful. The really cool part is these letters can address the little and big things. It could be addressed to the roommate who picked you up in the middle of the night you got a flat tire, or it could be to the co-worker who invites you out for coffee every afternoon, always making you feel included. Again, gratitude knows no bounds. You'll reap the benefits regardless.
The fact gratitude turns the focus away from yourself, creating a savory aspect, while encouraging an individual to focus on the good in their life (and the equally good people and experiences) makes it a trifecta of psychological perspective, Simon-Thomas said.
"If someone served you and you don’t say thank you," Simon-Thomas said, "you’re cheating both that person and yourself."