The Powerful Habit of a Gratitude Practice
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. It’s one of my favorite holidays. We do interesting things like decide that Turkey isn’t simply a dryer version of Chicken, but it actually tastes delicious and that one pie just is not enough, there should always be at least 3 different pies for dessert. It is a time when families and friends get together and many have a strange practice of going around the table and saying what they are thankful for. Being thankful and grateful however, isn’t something we should reserve for one time a year. If this is a regular practice then not only will you be much happier, but there are other huge benefits as well.
Being thankful sounds like an easy thing to do, but there’s reasons why many of us just don’t do it. Indeed, it can be extremely challenging to actually focus on the positive and celebrate the good things that we appreciate. Instead, what we are really good at is focusing on all the things that went wrong, the things we want to change and those things we think should be better. We can always talk endlessly about the difficult and problematic areas, and there are clear scientific reasons behind this.
The tendency to naturally concentrate on more negative information is referred to as our ‘Negativity Bias’. Our brains are literally hard wired to focus more on the negative. Research clearly shows that negative experiences result in a far greater psychological impact than positive experiences, even when both events are equally “good or bad.” Indeed, in a situation where many things go really well, we tend to focus on the one thing that did not.
Negativity bias is a product of our evolution. Viewed from this evolutionary perspective it does indeed make sense. I am sure cave dwelling men that spent time truly appreciating the wonder of a double rainbow or a unique cloud formation did not survive at the same rate as those who were more focused on looking out for dangers like saber toothed tigers. In the past it definitely served us well to be hyper focused on threats and things that could be potentially harmful. This negativity bias aided our ancestors to make good decisions in high-risk situations, which increased the likelihood of their survival so that they could pass their genes onto the next generation.
Negativity bias presently though can have some significant unfortunate results. While it makes sense to look at bad events and things that didn’t go well so we may learn from them, we can tend to spend way too much time focusing on the negative than is really helpful. This focus on the negative also sets us all up to be much more predisposed to issues with depression and anxiety.
In order to change this, we therefore need to work to rewire our brains to be more focused on the positive. It’s true that some people may be predisposed to being more positive, but typically it is something we actually need to make a conscious effort to do. We need to take active measures to notice the good in the world and also in ourselves.
Being grateful means truly having an appreciation for what you have right now. There is a tremendous power in not focusing on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, but instead appreciate the present moment. It is unfortunate that oftentimes we only truly appreciate the positive things when we don’t have them anymore (cue Joni Mitchell – ‘don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone’). For example, when we lose people who are important to us what we often miss the most is the really small things. Being able to call them when something good happens, the way they smelled or the sound of their voice. These things however, are often not things we truly appreciated when they are actually happening. It is also the same when we ourselves experience a set-back or negative event. For example, every so often I suffer from lower back pain and this always makes me appreciate what it is like to not be in pain; to be able to go for a walk without discomfort or sleep without waking up every 5 minutes. When I am experiencing back pain I absolutely appreciate the luxury of not having it and look forward to a time when it is gone, but as soon as it resolves itself it is very easy to take it for granted and not recognize what a benefit it is to be without it.
If we are grateful then we are truly able to enjoy the full benefit of what we have right now. It is not enough to simply have an attitude of gratitude however. As the great Brene Brown states in her book ‘Daring Greatly’:
‘If the opposite of scarcity is enough then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough. I use the word practicing because research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices more than merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful. In fact they gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything from keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals.’
Gratitude is something you actually have to make a conscious decision to do. It is not a way of being, but an action you need to take. If you ask people if they are grateful then 99% would say that they are, but what is important is not this attitude of gratitude, but an actual gratitude practice.
Being grateful and focusing on the positive has some truly tremendous results and research shows the many benefits of a daily gratitude practice. People who are consistently grateful have been found to be relatively happier, more energetic, more helpful, more forgiving, have higher emotional intelligence and experience more frequent positive emotions. The more a person is inclined to gratitude the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious and lonely. Robert Emmons completed many studies on gratitude and found it to be integral to our well-being. When people were trained to be more grateful over just a few weeks they became happier, more optimistic, more socially connected and had better quality sleep than a control group (Emmons, 2007).
A gratitude practice can be different for every person, but it does need to be consistent. The most common gratitude practice is keeping a journal and writing in the journal every day a certain number of things (usually 3) that you are grateful. These cannot be the same 3 things every day, but something new each day or something specific that happened in the past 24 hours. Another important part of an effective gratitude practice is identifying why you are grateful for those specific things.
In order to make the gratitude practice consistent it is beneficial to tie it in with something that is already daily habit. For example, if you eat dinner with your family every evening then you could add a gratitude practice during this time. If you go for a run each morning then you could spend the first few minutes thinking of different things you are grateful for. For me, I prefer to start my day out with feeling grateful and focusing on the positive. I walk my daughter to school most mornings and while we are walking we always tell each other at least 3 things that we are grateful for any why (unfortunately the iPad and Nintendo Switch games feature strongly, but she really does love those things).
It may seem a bit weird at first, but stick with it as it will most likely become one of your favorite parts of the day. The amazing things is when you start doing some kind of gratitude practice then it filters into other parts of your life. When you have to think of positive things every day then throughout the day you find yourself automatically looking for these positive things to be grateful for. In this way you are literally rewiring your thinking and overcoming negativity bias. It is not that you are ignoring bad or negative things (you will always be able to pay attention to them with no effort), it is that you are balancing out the negative distortion and by doing so reaping the benefits of being able to see the positive things too.
Happiness research found that the results of doing a brief gratitude practice for just 45 seconds each day for 21 days had a significant impact. People who tested at low level pessimistic on day 1 tested at low level optimistic on day 21 and their optimism level continued to keep increasing as time went on.
A gratitude practice will also reap positive benefits at work. You will be much more likely to notice things going well, successes that are occurring and people doing great work. Because you are happier you will reap the benefits of a positive outlook, including increased productivity, better working relationships and improved problem solving.
One practice that can be really beneficial is detailed in ‘The Happiness Advantage’ by Shawn Achor. This describes a more external gratitude practice, where instead of telling yourself what you are grateful for, you express it outwardly. He recommended spending 2 minutes at the start of everyday sending a positive email thanking someone different each day. This was found to have positive impact on overall happiness, but an even greater effect on the persons level of social connection. After 21 days of doing a daily gratitude email thanking someone, the average person’s level of social connections increased so that they scored in the top 10% in this area. This is significant because social connection has also been found to be the highest predictor of overall happiness and success. Social connections are also as predictive of how long you will live as obesity, high blood pressure and smoking.
So this Thanksgiving remember what you are grateful and all the things you have to be thankful for. And remember being thankful is something that can be beneficial no matter what day it is.
Do you have a gratitude practice that you find helpful? Do you want to start a gratitude practice?
Here are some resources on gratitude practices and related areas: