I used to think Thanksgiving was the most ridiculous holiday. As a kid, I watched the women in the house spend endless hours cooking food that I didn’t like very much and we didn’t even get a gift at the end. Instead, we had to clean up while the men sat around watching football on television. This was not a tradition I felt thankful for. Now that I have kids of my own, I have the opportunity to begin some new traditions. The one thing I have learned to love about this holiday is that it is a reminder to be thankful. This is the part that I really want to teach my children. But why only be grateful once a year? After a bit of research on the topic, I concluded that we should practice being thankful much more often.
Here is what I have learned (and hope to teach my kids)… While most of us don’t think about gratitude much until Thanksgiving, researchers have been studying gratitude extensively and not just on holidays. Dr. Robert Emmons is the leading researcher on this subject and has shown time and time again that gratitude has many benefits. Based on his evidence, we should all be thinking about this practice daily rather than just once a year.
So what has science shown us about the benefits of practicing gratitude? Well, grateful people are more satisfied with their lives in general. They are thankful for what they have and don’t spend much time longing for what is missing in their lives. They are rarely envious of others since they are happy with what they have. It is actually impossible to be envious and grateful at the same time. Seriously, try it!
Also, if you have an attitude of gratitude there is no room for negative feelings. When you take a moment and recognize all of the wonderful things you have, you feel happier. When you focus on the positive you are in a better mood and are less likely to fall into negative thinking. Basically, you cannot suffer and appreciate at the same time.
Expressing gratitude can improve relationships because grateful people get along better with others. Their relationships are more satisfying, they feel more connected and less isolated than people who are less grateful or not practicing gratitude.
Dr Emmons also says that grateful people are less depressed, less anxious, they achieve more and are more giving. There are also benefits to our physical health. Grateful people have healthier habits, they exercise more and sleep better. They also have lower blood pressure and healthier heart health. Sign me up!
Grateful people are also more resilient to trauma and more equipped to handle setbacks in life. According to Dr. Emmons, “Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals”.
So with all of these benefits who wouldn’t want to become more grateful?
Well, as it tuns out it is not quite so easy. Our brain is naturally wired to focus on the negatives. Looking for the bad or dangerous kept us alive from an evolutionary perspective. This was a useful trait in our caveman days but is not so useful today. Science shows we are 7 times more likely to notice a negative than a positive. The good thing is that neuroscience shows that our brains can change when we adopt new habits. The very structure of our brain can grow when we practice positive habits.
It seems obvious then that gratitude needs to become a practice. One way to do this is by gratitude journaling. Emmons’ research showed that after just two or three weeks of filling out gratitude diaries participants had an improvement in mood, optimistic outlook and life satisfaction. They were also more likely to help others. This takes only 5 or 10 minutes a day. Other research shows that if we write down three things we are grateful for everyday, after 21 days we start to re-wire our brains to start scanning the world for the positives.
Take the Gratitude Challenge with me! I challenge you to write down three things you are grateful for every day for 21 days. I will be doing this too and updating you along the way. Together let’s see if we notice these benefits as well.
So start practicing and your brain will grow to be a grateful one. You will be one step closer to your best self yet!