Gratitude Practice Explained
The holiday season is a good time to think about gifts, and not just the paper-wrapped kind. The people in your life can themselves be gifts—and so can a thousand other things, big and little, many of which you probably overlook day to day. Taking time during the holidays to notice, contemplate, and express gratitude for these people and things can make your holidays far more meaningful. Gratitude is a healing and supportive emotion, too. If you’re struggling with family drama, stressful travel, or disappointments, the practice of gratitude can help you through.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is a state of mind that arises when you affirm a good thing in your life that comes from outside yourself, or when you notice and relish little pleasures. Though some people and things are clear blessings, this state of mind doesn’t actually depend on your life circumstances. Whether it’s the sight of a lovely face or a tasty bite of food or good health, there is always something to be grateful for. Even bad experiences at least teach us something. And gratitude is not just a feeling outside your control that arrives willy-nilly. It’s more like a radio channel: you can choose at any time to tune in.
Gratitude acknowledges connection, and perhaps for this reason it is central to spiritual traditions worldwide, including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and East Asian religions. When we contemplate our place in the intricate, interdependent network of life, we feel wonder and joy. That realization can lead us to express thanksgiving.
What are the benefits of gratitude?
More than any other personality trait, gratitude is strongly linked to mental health and life satisfaction. Grateful people experience more joy, love, and enthusiasm, and they enjoy protection from destructive emotions like envy, greed, and bitterness. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, and it helps people entangled with those and other problems to heal and find closure. It can give you a deep and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering.
Not only is gratitude a warm and uplifting way to feel, it benefits the body as well. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function.
Unlike other positive emotions like hope and happiness, gratitude is inherently relational: it reaches past the person experiencing it and into the social realm. It is gratitude in large measure that inspires people to acts of kindness, since it’s natural to respond to gifts with heartfelt gifts of your own. And that strengthens your bonds with other people. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy.
What is gratitude practice?
Gratitude isn’t just an emotion that happens along, but a virtue we can cultivate. Think of it as something you practice as you might meditation or yoga.
Gratitude practice begins by paying attention. Notice all the good things you normally take for granted. Did you sleep well last night? Did someone at work or on the street treat you with courtesy? Have you caught a glimpse of the sky, with its sun and clouds, and had a moment of peace? It also involves acknowledging that difficult and painful moments are instructive and you can be grateful for them as well. Directing our attention this way blocks feelings of victimhood.
Second, consider writing about it in a journal or in a letter. Writing helps you organize thoughts, accept experiences, and put them into context, and gratitude journaling may bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to difficult life situations. It also helps you create meaning when you place everyday experiences within a framework of gifts and gratefulness. By writing, you can magnify and expand on the sources of goodness in your life, and think about what resources you’ve gained from your experiences, even bad ones.
In one study, people randomly assigned to keep weekly gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to people assigned to record hassles or neutral events. In another, young adults who kept a daily gratitude journal reported higher alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to those who focused on hassles or compared themselves to others less fortunate.
Finally, expressing gratitude completes the feeling of connection. Many people in your life have helped you in one way or another. Have you thanked them? Consider sending a letter to someone telling them what their actions meant to you, even if—especially if—it happened long ago. As for a response to blessings that don’t come from people, the arts and many faith traditions offer countless ways to express our gratitude. It may be as simple as a moment of deliberate reflection. Either way, the practice of gratitude may be the best holiday gift of all.
Robin Stern, Ph.D. Associate Director
Robert Emmons, Ph.D. Professor, University of California, Davis
Adapted from “Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention,” by Robert A Emmons, Ph.D. Dept. of Psychology, University of California, Davis and Robin S. Stern, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Journal of Clinical Psychology Volume 69, Issue 8, pages 846–855, August 2013.