Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better and improve health. So perhaps November is a good time to review the mental health benefits of gratitude — and to consider some advice about how to cultivate this state of mind.
Thanksgiving is typically the one time of the year when we make an effort to reflect about what we’re grateful for. But by adopting an “attitude of gratitude” beyond the holiday season, you can enjoy many lasting benefits. If you take some time each day to jot down the reasons you’re grateful, you could see some pretty powerful results:
Cultivating an attitude of thankfulness when done first thing in the morning, sets the tone for the day and helps us stay positive and cheerful. We benefit even further when our attitude is expressed to others, recorded in a journal or leads to acts of kindness. Doing small, un-noticed, good deeds each day can help boost the natural tendency to be grateful and look for the good in any situation.
The Thanksgiving holiday began, as the name implies, when the colonists gave thanks for their survival and for a good harvest.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or God.
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.
Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.
Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible. Once in a while, write one to yourself.
Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.
Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the good things you have experienced each day. If you have had an “awfully bad” day, reflect on the best part of the “bad” day.
Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings — reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number — such as three to five things — that you will identify each week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.
Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude. We can all be grateful for a God who loves us unconditionally.
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase or just on each relaxed breath, it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (we each have so very much!).
We are fortunate as a nation that our forefathers recognized the importance of being thankful and set aside a time for us to reflect on our blessings.
Paul R. Block, MD, FACP, FCCP