Everyone wants to be more grateful in their life, and we all value this desirable human characteristic greatly. However, few of us are actually mindfully grateful. There are many definitions of gratitude: From a Positive Psychology point of view, it is not just an act of being kind to others by saying thank you; it’s a positive emotion that serves a biological purpose and one where the effect can be measured. There are also many synonyms for gratitude; the most used ones are acknowledgement, appreciation, and thankfulness.
The Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as: “A thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”.
Gratitude is about counting one’s blessings regardless of whether life is going well or not. We are, however, more prone to think about what we’re grateful for when things in our life aren’t going as well as we would like them to. What’s important about gratitude is that it’s not about what you did to others or what you achieved in a day, but acknowledging that you received something from someone else that you value and appreciate. The purpose of being grateful is to make life better for ourselves and others and to overcome the human tendency to take things, people or situations for granted. You shouldn’t feel entitled to the benefits, or to resent others for their benefits, or to take full credit for your own success. There were always others involved who supported, guided and believed in you.
According to Robert Emmons, an American Professor of Psychology, gratitude has two stages to it. In stage one we are focused on our own internal world and are consciously aware of the goodness of our life. We feel positive and find life worth living. We are able to appreciate life’s richness as well as those who have contributed to it. In stage two the focus shifts to the external world and we absorb the beauty and goodness in other people, animals, nature, and the world.
But why do we struggle so much with this hugely inspiring characteristic? Gratitude doesn’t come naturally for most of us, whereas resentment and entitlement do. Gratitude is a virtue, which means that it needs to be taught, modelled, and regularly practised until it becomes an automatic habit.
To complicate matters, gratitude has been identified as a trait (a genetically determined characteristic), an emotion, and a mood. It starts off as an emotional reaction of feeling thankful and recognising the contribution others have made to our life and well-being. It then develops into a mood of a subtle, longer duration of conscious state, and ends as a permeable character trait.
The Benefits of Enhancing Our Gratitude
There are many benefits to enhancing our level of gratitude:
- Promotes optimal functioning
- Promotes feelings of empathy, forgiveness and helping others
- Facilitates coping with stress and loss
- Reduces upward social comparison which often results in envy and resentment
- Reduces materialistic striving
- Improves self-esteem
- Allows us to savour positive and pleasant memories
- Builds social resources
- Motivates moral and ethical behaviour
- Fosters goal attainment
- Promotes physical health
- Increases one’s spirituality
Growing Your Gratitude
After reading those powerful benefits, I’m sure that you’re excited to learn and grow your level of gratitude. Here are some ideas on how to do just that:
- If you enjoy journaling, this one’s for you! Take five minutes at the start or end of your day where you write down what you are grateful for. It can cover a wide range of things from the mundane to the magnificent. You do need to vary it and challenge yourself to look for new gratitude nuggets every day. It’s a powerful tool for you to reflect and notice who or what you are thankful for. Writing it down is important because on days where you feel low you can look at the things that you are grateful for.
- Express gratitude directly to another person. Write them a note or letter expressing what you appreciate about them as a person, or what they did for you. You can either read it to them or leave it in a place where they’ll find it. It’s very special to hear what impact one has made in another person’s life. Expect some tears with this one!
- Take note of an ungrateful thought that pops into your head and consciously reframe it to a positive one. We all have thoughts that aren’t positive and that entail negative language. It can be about us, others, or a certain situation. If we don’t manage or become aware of these thoughts, they can turn into stories that we buy into and so it is important to catch them, question them, and reframe them into positive ones. Ask yourself what you are learning, and what makes the situation good as it is. It does take some practice to catch those thoughts.
Whichever idea you use, remain curious and open-minded. If one suggestion doesn’t work, swop it for another one. Experiment and play with this. Keep it varied and fresh. As we are at halfway through the year, it’s the ideal time to reflect and express gratitude to the people who have supported you so far.
Have fun and spread gratitude!