We live in a stressful world, feeling perpetually behind, so connected to the entire world through our technology that we’re disconnected from each other and from ourselves. Rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. But there is an antidote to all of this: gratitude. When you find yourself in that stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, gratitude is the brake lever. Gratitude helps us reset and gives us perspective. We think of gratitude as a coda, an add-on, something that comes at the end. But in fact, gratitude is the beginning. And when we practice it, it sets off a chain reaction of positive benefits.
It’s something the ancients certainly knew. Cicero wrote that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” This wisdom has since been confirmed by a mountain of hard science, as the list of what gratitude can do is seemingly endless.
Robert Emmons, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough, Ph.D., of the University of Miami, are two of the foremost gratitude researchers. In one study, they had one group of participants write down things they were grateful for over the course of several weeks. Another group recorded things that had aggravated them. It’s not that the gratitude group had more things to be grateful for — it’s that they were more focused on the things they were grateful for than on the things that upset them, and as a result, they were more optimistic and happier with their lives, and even had fewer visits to the doctor. We’re grateful not for the things we’re entitled to, but just the opposite. “At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit,” Emmons and McCullough write in their book The Psychology of Gratitude. “The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.” And that, as they conclude in their study, has powerful consequences. “A life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills,” they write.
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the positive psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the beneficial impact of a single gratitude exercise — in this case, writing and delivering a letter of thanks to someone — could last for an entire month. Gratitude has also been found to improve sleep and lower levels of stress and depression. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine found that gratitude interventions could improve heart health by lowering levels of inflammation.
In adolescents, gratitude has been found to reduce materialism and increase generosity. Another study concluded that gratitude can lead to healthier eating in young people. In the elderly, gratitude has been found to reduce loneliness.
We see that gratitude can work its magic in the workplace, as well. Researchers from Wharton found that gratitude in the form of managers saying thank you to their employees for their efforts motivated them to work harder.
And I’ve seen the power of gratitude in my own life. My current method is borrowed from my daughter, Christina. Before bed, I’ll jot down a few things I’m grateful for in a journal. It focuses my mind on all the blessings in my life, big and small — and diminishes the running list of unresolved problems. Of course, we all have a mix of both in our lives, and it’s up to us what governs our mood. As Dickens wrote, “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” It’s easy to let the attention-seeking setbacks and upsets take center stage, especially as our heads hit the pillow. But gratitude shifts the spotlight, making sure it’s our blessings that send us off to sleep, which makes it much more likely that we won’t wake up in the middle of the night ruminating over every problem.
And the objects of our gratitude don’t have to be big or life-changing. It can be gratitude for your morning cafe latte, or a random encounter with a person who made you smile that day, or a piece of nature on the way to work. Or it can be simply gratitude for being alive.
I find I’m grateful not only for all the tangible blessings that have come my way in life, but I’m also grateful for all that hasn’t happened — for all those close shaves with “disaster” of some kind or another, all the bad things that could have happened but didn’t. The distance between them happening and not happening is grace. And gratitude.
There are, of course, countless ways to bring gratitude into your life. Mark Williams, DPhil, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford, suggests a daily “10-finger gratitude exercise,” in which you list 10 things you’re grateful for and count them out on your fingers. Coming up with 10 won’t always be easy. But that’s the point — it’s about, as he puts it in his book, Mindfulness, “intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.”
Professor Laurie Santos, Ph.D., is the teacher of Yale’s most popular class, “Psychology and the Good Life,” also known as the “happiness course.” Gratitude is one of the pillars of the course. But, as Santos says, to get the full effect, it has to be more than just going through the motions. “You have to take time to feel it,” she says. “It’s a moment to really reflect on, ‘What would my life be like without this thing?’”
It’s no coincidence, she notes, that gratitude, along with other structural supports of our well-being, has been at the core of every tradition that focuses on what it means to live a Good Life. “Our minds are terrible at accurately predicting what will make us happy,” she says. “I think that’s why humans have historically needed religion and faith. Those traditions push us in the direction of doing acts of charity, having gratitude, being in communities where we connect with people — all things that give us a boost. Luckily, nonbelievers can get a boost from those habits, too.”
But to get that boost, we need to be deliberate about it. One extra bit of motivation is to think about the impact of your gratitude not just on you, but on the object of your gratitude. A fascinating study by researchers from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago had participants draft letters of gratitude and then try to predict how happy, surprised or awkward the recipients would feel. What they found was that people greatly underestimated how happy the recipients felt, and overestimated the awkwardness. “Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own — and others’ — well-being,” the authors concluded.
If you always feel like you’re short on time, try working gratitude into your life through habit-stacking. This is the proven practice of creating a new habit by “stacking” it onto an existing habit. An easy method: Think of three things you’re grateful for while brushing your teeth or during some other part of your morning or evening routine. It’s a way of adding meaning to mundane moments — and without having to find any more time in your day.
But however you do it, just do it — find a way to give yourself the gift of gratitude. It’s a small miracle and it’s available to all of us, all the time. And the only eligibility requirement is being alive. As the saying goes, it’s not happy people who are thankful, it’s grateful people who are happy.