I have a friend who has a particular habit I’ve never seen anyone else do. Whenever we go out to eat, he always introduces himself to his server, and asks for their name. And every time I’ve seen this happen, the result is lovely – all parties involved find ourselves smiling, we feel connected with each other, and are happier for having gotten to know each other by name. It personalizes the experience, I feel genuine gratitude towards the person who is providing us with our meal, and it seems our server feels grateful for being treated as a person, a human being with a personality, history, values and not just ‘our server’.
In today’s social media, we’ve most likely seen our friends post things like “Three good things about Monday” or “Gratitude journal, day 14”. Some studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful — benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike. This article from Harvard University [http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health-Letter/2011/November/in-praise-of-gratitude] summarizes a few of these studies on psychology.
Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. His studies have found that:
- In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
- A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
- Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
- In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.
- Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008).
But not studies in positive psychology show a significant change for those doing a gratitude exercise. Digging a little deeper into the research, here are some key factors that seem to make a big difference as to whether or not keeping a gratitude journal will affect a measurable benefit. [http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/Labs/PWT/Image/emmons/file/GQ-6-scoring-interp_08_10_11.pdf]
- Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if you first make the conscious decision to become happier and more grateful. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
- Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
- Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
- Try subtraction, not just addition. One effective way of stimulating gratitude is to reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things.
- Savor surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
- Don’t overdo it. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
In my experience, getting something done and making it simple is much more effective than trying to make it perfect, beautiful, and all encompassing. I agree with key tip #1. As a meditation instructor and therapist, if I were to choose only one thing as a magic bullet for Life, I would say that it’s awareness. No matter how you decide to document gratitude, don’t just go through the motions, make it a sacred practice of awareness.
And lastly, well, if Oprah is endorsing it…it MUST be good for us, right?