Gratitude. Unlike eating leafy greens or practicing yoga, it’s not something we usually consider “good for us.” Yet a recent study by psychologists at the University of California-Davis and the University of Miami shows that giving thanks is indeed beneficial for our psychological well-being.
Conducting “gratitude interventions” with such varied groups as college students and adults with neuromuscular disease, researchers Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough found that individuals practicing gratitude on a regular (daily or weekly) basis displayed a more positive general outlook, greater optimism, and less stress and depression. Other benefits found were higher levels of alertness, energy, enthusiasm, and determination as well as a greater likelihood of being generous, empathetic, and aware of one’s interconnectedness with others.
Though we may say “thanks” countless times each day, really practicing gratitude requires reflection and open-hearted sincerity. Mark Nasralla, former ayurvedic clinician and current therapist manager at The Crossings in Austin, Texas, notes, “Being grateful intellectually isn’t enough. Gratitude is an emotional, psychosomatic experience. You feel grateful, so you have to put your attention inward and seek out the source of that feeling.”
Similarly, the subjects in the study were not merely thanking others in passing, they were actively engaged in contemplating what and whom they were thankful for by making lists, participating in self-guided exercises, and keeping journals. Not surprisingly, Emmons and McCullough found that the religious and spiritual were more apt at cultivating gratitude, often through the practices of prayer and meditation. But becoming more grateful doesn’t require joining a church, it can be as basic as counting your blessings before bed—a practice anyone can do.
“The simplest way to become more grateful,” Nasralla explains, “is to make lists, every day. This allows you to revisit all the things you are thankful for. As you continue, gratitude becomes a habit.” Not a list-maker? Prayer or a moment of silence before a meal is one way of honoring the food and the person who prepared it. In his forthcoming book Bless This Food (New World Library, 2007), author Adrian Butash has compiled 160 mealtime blessings from cultures and religions throughout the world, making it easy and educational to say grace. Finally, if you meditate, incorporate gratitude into each session by visualizing one person, place, or thing you truly appreciate.
The more you practice gratitude, the easier it becomes. “It follows the law of attraction—like attracts like,” says Nasralla. “What you [focus] your attention on grows stronger.” To bring more thankfulness into your daily experience, Nasralla offers three steps. One, have a clear intention. Two, take action by meditating, journaling, or speaking. And finally, consciously look for opportunities to feel gratitude during small, everyday events.
Though there is no magic spell to keep stress, troubles, and the bumps of life from happening, there is evidence that bolstering feelings of gratitude can change the way you experience those events. By helping you navigate life’s storms with greater ease, more general happiness, and a brighter sense of optimism, giving thanks can become something to be thankful for.