Most of us have heard that gratitude is beneficial to our health and wellbeing. But how do you actually practice gratitude in everyday life? And what insights do scientific studies offer?
Before we get started, what do we actually mean by gratitude?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gratitude (grat·i·tude | \ ˈgra-tə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd \) means „the state of being grateful; thankfulness„.
In their book, Tayyab Rashid and Martin Seligman define gratitude as „an awareness of and thankfulness for the good things in one’s life. If gratitude is one of your top strengths, you take time to express thanks and contemplate all that you have been given in life“ (2019, p. 173).
Scientific research goes one step further and include the notion of habit and even coping response when they talk about gratitude as “an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003, p. 377).
What can science teach us about gratitude?
- Resilience and gratitude. Researchers in the US looked at gratitude in first year undergraduate students beginning University (Wood, Maltby and Gillett and colleagues as cited in Wood et al., 2010). They found that students who were higher in gratitude were less stressed, less depressed and had higher perceived social support at the end of the first term. The study findings suggest that gratitude may enhance resilience in a period of life transition.
- Pro-social behaviour and gratitude. Another study looked at pro-social behaviour and gratitude (Bartlett and DeSteno, 2006). The researchers found that a grateful individual was more likely to exert greater effort to help a benefactor (i.e. someone who has helped the individual in some way through a pro-social act) on a completely unrelated task – such as filling in a lengthy, boring survey – than ungrateful people.
- Wellbeing and gratitude. McCullough, Emmons and Tsang (2002) conducted 4 studies looking at psychological domains and gratitude, namely pro-sociality, emotionality/wellbeing, and spirituality/religiousness. Their research showed that grateful individuals are more satisfied with life, experience more positive emotions, and experience less negative emotions such as depression, envy, and anxiety . Also, not surprisingly, more grateful people also tend to be more pro-socially oriented. They are more likely to be empathic, forgiving, helpful and supportive than those who are less grateful. They are less focused on attaining materialistic goals. Interesting enough, the results illustrate that those who show more gratefulness also tend to be more spiritually and religiously minded.
- Psychological + physical wellbeing and gratitude: Research by Emmons & Stern (2013) indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting positive effects in an individual’s life. Clinical trials show that it can lower blood pressure, promote happiness and well-being, improve immune function, and stimulate acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation. Moreover, gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression and anxiety.
- Reference: the first three of the above studies and many more are included in the article by Heather Craig (see below).
The root of joyfulness is gratefulness… It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful. – Brother David Steindl-Rast
How can we practice gratitude in our everyday life?
- Express thanks: practise to express thanks to everyone who has contributed to your achievements. It doesn’t matter how big or small their contribution might have been. This could be the bus driver you brought you to your workplace, a good friend who called to check in or the barista who made this amazing coffee.
- The shortest practice (introduced to me by Brother David-Steindl-Rast): Stop. Look. Go. Take a moment, find one thing you are grateful for, and go sharing it with others.
- Keep a gratitude journal: establish a daily practice in order to remind yourself of things in your life that you are grateful for. These could be special events, gifts, benefits or people. Try to go for depth over breadth because you will better remember those incidents. And don’t forget to be thankful for things that did not happen to you.
And if you want to dig even deeper, check out the following resources for gratitude:
- Extensive overview of science on gratitude by Heather Craig.
- Dankbarkeit – Das Herz allen Betens. Book (in German) by Brother David Steindl-Rast.
- Want to be happy? Be grateful. TED Talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast.