The Power of GratitudeNov 14, 2022
HARNESSING THE POWER OF GRATITUDE
When my son was in middle school, he mentioned how much he enjoyed his social studies class. That surprised me because that subject had never been one of his favorites. I jotted a quick note to his teacher to let her know that she was impacting my son. I didn’t think much of sending the note -- It seemed like a normal thing for a parent to do. So, I was shocked when the teacher was so touched that she wrote me a thank you note thanking me for my thank you note! I had no idea an expression of gratitude could be so powerful.
Most of us would agree that gratitude is a good idea. We teach our kids from the time they can talk to say “thank you” when they receive a gift—even if they don’t particularly like the gift. What we don’t often realize is how powerful gratitude can be. Research indicates a vast array of benefits to being thankful. What are those benefits, and how can we harness the power of gratitude in our own lives?
WHAT IS GRATITUDE?
Gratitude is one of those concepts we recognize but can find difficult to articulate. The dictionary simply defines it as the quality, feeling, or expression of being grateful or thankful. When we look at research, we see that gratitude is much bigger than that: is one of the building blocks of human biology, with deep roots in our thinking, emotions, and behavior.
It can be helpful to look at gratitude in three ways: as an emotion, an expression, and a disposition.
We’ve all experienced the emotion of gratitude – that rush of positive emotion, sense of relief, or feeling of appreciation we get when we receive a gift or other kindness. The feeling of gratitude is fleeting, and usually tied to something that happens to us.
Expressions of gratitude can be actions, words, or even facial or emotional expressions (I tend to cry when I feel grateful). You’ve likely expressed gratitude by saying thank you or writing a note of appreciation.
Dispositional gratitude is more akin to a character trait or virtue. When we have a grateful disposition, we tend to experience and express gratitude at a higher, more consistent level.
BENEFITS OF GRATITUDE
Research suggests an array of physical, psychological, and social benefits to gratitude. Brain studies show that when people experience gratitude, areas of the brain are activated which involve reward circuitry and social bonding. This increases feelings of well-being. Some of the benefits indicated by research include:
- Better physical and psychological health
- Better and longer sleep
- Increased happiness and life satisfaction
- Increased vitality
- Increased optimism
- Increased empathy
- Less focus on materialism
- Decreased envy
- Decreased likelihood of suffering burnout
Gratitude, which has been called the “mother of all virtues,” helps us develop other positive qualities, such as patience, humility, and wisdom. It aids us in being more helpful and generous to others, and it helps us develop and maintain healthy relationships. People with high dispositional gratitude show signs of better mental health, including higher levels of perceived social support and decreased levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
HOW CAN WE HARNESS THE POWER OF GRATITUDE
Three ways we can increase gratitude in ourselves is by cultivating a lens of gratitude, finding ways to give thanks in difficult situations, and intentionally practicing gratitude.
1) Cultivate a gratitude lens.
A lens is a way we perceive and interact with the world. We all have lenses, which are developed through our upbringing, experiences, culture, values, mindsets, biases, and other factors. People with a gratitude lens see life as a gift. They regard everything they have, including financial resources, natural resources, belongings, talents, and relationships, as having been given to them. As a result, they see themselves as stewards of what they possess, with the responsibility of nurturing, protecting, and increasing what they have been given.
We can contrast this lens with one through which people see themselves as owners of their resources, belongings, talents, and relationships. People with this lens tend to consume and use resources and relationships in ways that further their own ambitions and agendas, many times without thought of how their decisions impact others now and in the future. It is a lens that fosters entitlement rather than gratitude.
2) Find ways to give thanks in challenging situations.
It’s easy to be thankful when someone does something nice for us, or things go our way. Giving thanks when we experience loss, disappointment, frustration, and pain isn’t easy, but it can be powerful. Gratitude can help us reframe negative situations in a more positive light. Ask yourself questions such as: What opportunities does this problem present? How might I grow through this difficult situation? How might this be a “blessing in disguise?” This fall my husband and I undertook the project of staining our garage, an unattached structure two stories tall with a pitched roof. The job entailed getting uncomfortably high on ladders and using a ladder on the exterior staircase leading to the second floor. I didn’t look forward to doing this project, but I acknowledged that it needed to be done. So, I used gratitude to improve my attitude about it. I reminded myself how thankful I am to have a garage in which to house a car I really like. I was grateful that the weather was beautiful the two weekends we devoted to the project. I was thankful that my husband offered to climb the ladder to stain the really high parts. Focusing on positive thoughts like these made the experience much more pleasant for me.
Of course, there are many challenges more difficult and painful than staining a garage, and it can be hard to find something for which to be thankful. In these circumstances, it may help to remember that things could always be worse. Try asking yourself what you would trade for your current circumstance. Say you broke your leg and must use a wheelchair for six weeks while you recover. Would you trade your circumstances for someone who suffered a spinal injury and will likely use a wheelchair the rest of their life? If you lost your job, would you trade places with someone who lost a child? This is not to minimize or dismiss the pain you are experiencing; rather it is designed to help put your situation into perspective and help you identify points of gratitude.
We tend to associate challenging situations with negative thoughts and emotions. Finding ways to be thankful in difficult circumstances creates new neural circuits in the brain that can lessen the effect of those negative associations. The more we focus on what we are thankful for, the stronger those neural pathways become. The less attention we give to the negative associations, the weaker those pathways become.
For example, suppose you are fired from your job. Depending on your resources, past experiences, psychological makeup, and other factors, this event could trigger a cascade of negative reactions: fear that you won’t find another job, anger about being fired, feelings of inadequacy, and so on. As you focus on these reactions, neural pathways are developed. The more you focus on them, the stronger the pathways become, until those thoughts become ingrained and automatic. If, however, you find ways to give thanks amid your job loss, you can counteract these neural pathways with more positive ones. One way to do this is to make a list of affirming statements and read them aloud a couple times per day: “I can find another job.” “I have skills that can transfer to other lines of work.” “This could be an opportunity to try something new.” “I know of people who can help me.” “This is hard, but it is an opportunity for me to grow.” As you focus your attention on these statements, those neural connections strengthen and those thoughts become ingrained and automatic. In addition, toxic emotions associated with the old thoughts are replaced with positive ones. This isn’t easy work, especially if you have a lot of negative neural circuitry. But with persistence, we can actually rewire our brains.
3) Practice gratitude.
There are several ways to practice gratitude, and research indicates that doing these activities can increase happiness, feelings of well-being, and positive mood.
Intentional expressions of gratitude. Look for opportunities to express gratitude. As in the example I gave above, you never know how powerful these expressions can be. Here are a few ways to increase the power of your thanks giving:
- Tailor the expression to the recipient. Some people value written words and appreciate a hand-written letter or card that they can read over and over. Others may prefer a few words with a big hug. Grandparents may treasure a note written on paper, while younger people are fine with a text or comment on social media.
- Go beyond acknowledgement to impact. As a parent volunteer, I received dozens of thank you notes over the years my children were in school. Most thanked me for my time and contribution, and some were specific about what that contribution entailed. But the most powerful notes I received communicated impact. I received one such note from a student I directed in a middle school jazz ensemble. He wrote just one sentence: “Now I love jazz, because of you.” I vividly remember this, even though it was written over 25 years ago.
Count your blessings. Keep a gratitude journal in which you write down five things for which you are grateful. Do this daily or weekly.
Gratitude letters/visits. Write a letter to someone that you have never properly thanked. This may be a family member, coach, teacher, friend -- anyone who has made a positive difference in your life. If possible, visit them in person and read the letter aloud to them. Or, do this over the phone. Even if the person you want to thank is no longer alive, writing a gratitude letter can be helpful to you. Research indicates that people who write gratitude letters can benefit even if they do not deliver them.
Three Good Things. Write down three things that went well during the day and the causes of those good things. Examples of “good things” might include activities, connections with others, a great dinner, or good weather.
Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in becoming a more grateful person and provided you with some practical ways to do this. As we develop a gratitude lens, find ways to be grateful even in difficult situations, and express gratitude in effective ways, we can harness the power of gratitude and help ourselves and others reap its benefits.
By Connie Powers Mohawk LPC, NCC - Licensed Professional Counselor
The Science of Gratitude by Summer Allen Ph.D. May 2018, ggsc.berkeley.edu