Quite simply, gratitude may be the best gift you can give, and receive, this Xmas time. Don’t just take my word for it, study after study has shown how practicing gratitude is a powerful spurce of well-being.

If you don’t already have a gratitude mind-set, Xmas is a great time to begin forming one because, it’s a time when for many of us, there’s plenty to be grateful for – such as the company of family and friends, food, presents, laughter, a break from work.

What is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, the pioneering researcher on gratitude, defines it as:

The feeling of reverence for something given. It occurs when, thanks to other people, something good happens to us that we don’t necessarily earn or deserve.

Emmons says that gratitude is a deliberate way of thinking. It’s fundamentally a positive mind-set, where we recognize that there’s some good in the world; and because it’s always directed at something outside ourselves, it’s a recognition that we’re dependent on others.

We can experience gratitude as a momentary feeling we experience when someone benefits us, and also as a more long-term mind-set, where we see everything in life as a gift.

A gratitude mind-set helps us:
  • see more of the good in life and get more pleasure out of life as we savour the experience.
  • deepen our connection to others. It’s hard to feel like the world is a terrible place, when we notice all the things that other people are doing for us.
  • bolster our self-worth, because we can’t be that bad if people are being kind to us, can we?
  • remember and reminisce about positive experiences. By spotlighting the good things we have, gratitude discourages us from taking things for granted.
  • overcome anxiety and stress. The positive attitude of gratitude helps us move past stress and actually prevents us from experiencing negative emotions like envy, resentment, and regret. Gratitude also helps reduce the frequency and duration of depression.
Practising gratitude begins first and foremost with a conscious choice. A choice to pause for a moment and mentally review all that is present in our lives to be thankful for.

Why is practising gratitude so powerful?

Grateful people:

  • have more positive emotion and pleasure, and are more optimistic, energetic, joyful, and happy. We might think that gratitude is only useful when things are going well, but it’s actually a powerful tool when life is hard. Although gratitude in these moments might not make us feel good, it can shift our perspective toward the positive. For example, when we compare the current situation to the worst time in our life, today will probably come out looking a little better.
  • have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They’re less bothered by aches and pains and take better care of their health, like exercising more. They also sleep longer and feel more refreshed in the morning.
  • are more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing; and less lonely and isolated.
  • are more likely to see a crisis in a positive light and less likely to disengage and blame themselves.

Five myths about gratitude

Emmons has identified, and rebutted, the following commonly held beliefs about expressing gratitude:

  1. Gratitude makes us complacent, accepting whatever we have as enough. In fact, in one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress. In general, grateful people aren’t more satisfied with their progress toward their goals than less grateful people.
  2. Gratitude is just a fluffy form of positive thinking. In fact, gratitude may come with some negative emotions from the realization that we’re dependent on and indebted to others. Also, gratitude increases positive emotions more than it reduces negative emotions, and it doesn’t reduce anxiety, tension, or unhappiness at all.
  3. Gratitude makes us self-effacing. Studies have shown that recognizing the contributions of others doesn’t reduce how much credit we take.
  4. We can’t be grateful in hard times. Gratitude is particularly useful after a crisis and can help us see the bigger picture.
  5. Gratitude is for religious people. Although religious people are a bit more inclined to be grateful, anyone can do it – and being grateful to God doesn’t mean we’re less grateful to other people.

How do we reap the benefits of practicing gratitude?

One of the best ways to reap the benefits of practising gratitude is ….

Gratitude Journaling

There’s plenty of research that supports the practice of maintaining a Gratitude Journal. Gratitude journaling trains our minds to notice good things, interpret situations positively, and think about positive events from the past.

In one gratitude study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. At the end of the study period, they came out more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong. They felt more optimistic, better about life and were more likely to support or help others, and other people did in fact rate them as more helpful.

The research suggests that gratitude journaling every day may actually be counterproductive for the average person; instead, try twice weekly or (Robert Emmons’s recommendation) every other day.

So this Xmas I’d recommend you get hold of a journal, notebook, diary or the like, and ….

One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). Writing things down on paper – as opposed to onto your PC or mobile phone(!) gives them more emotional impact. It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time.

To get the most out of this habit, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more and more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Aim to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of them/it.

As you write take some time to really be mindful of the thing you’re grateful for. How does it make you feel to have that in your life? Open yourself for your experience and let it affect you.

Savour the experience: Keep your attention on the positive experience for some time, and especially on how it feels. You can make it even more intense by thinking about other similar moments. Don’t try to cling to it, but enjoy it as intensely as possible.

Let the experience sink in: Imagine or feel the experience entering deeply into your mind and body, like the sun’s warmth into your body. Relax your body and absorb the emotions, sensations and thoughts associated with this experience.

This way you can anchor the experience deeply in your memory. Each time you do this consciously, you’re building a kind of gratitude reserve that you can fall back on in difficult moments.

And ….

If you find your gratitude journaling is becoming stale, you might like to mix things up – perhaps journaling some days, counting your blessings (in your head) on other days, or even trying to identify ungrateful thoughts and replace them with gratitude. For example, as you begrudgingly go to the gym, try to change your attitude by thinking: I’m grateful for this fancy gym equipment, or I’m grateful I have two legs to run on.

Brene Brown on joy and gratitude

And finally here’s a link to a short 4 minute video in which researcher Brené Brown talks about her daily gratitude practice with her family and the profound effects it has had on their lives:

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