Updated: Mar 12
To be honest, I used to think that the whole gratitude thing was, well, a bit pink and fluffy.
How can giving thanks really have a profound effect on the quality of someone’s wellbeing and life?
With links to many traditional faiths and spiritual practices, along with many a quote singing its praises, I got that there must be something in it.
Additionally, I could comprehend the merits of focussing on what you’re thankful for, as a way of seeing and in a sense bringing about more of it.
It was just that I tend to be drawn to techniques that are a little more, let’s just say, evidence based.
Interestingly though, when I explored some of the research, I discovered that there is more validity to gratitude than I first thought.
You may already be sold on gratitude or, like me, have some initial scepticism of its conceivable potential?
Whichever camp you are in, I hope you find this blog of interest, as I endeavour to convey my perception of:
what it means to be grateful,
some of the benefits of practising gratitude and the research backing these up,
a few ways you might go about putting gratitude into practice – should you wish to.
What does it mean to be grateful?
Often, when we think about gratitude we are drawn to think about the ‘good stuff’- all the situations, things and people that give us cause for thanks.
If I asked you to recall the things you are grateful for, the ‘good stuff’ is likely to be what springs, or dawdles, to mind.
In fact, much of the research on gratitude asks us to make focussing on the positives the core of the practice. I would agree, and recommend that this is certainly how you go about commencing a gratitude practice – more on that later.
However, gratitude isn’t necessarily just about the good stuff. A seasoned practice invites us to be thankful for everything in life.
Whilst I would struggle with this under many circumstances, as I expect most people would, there are likely to have been times in all our lives when something that seemed bad turned out to be a blessing.
Have you ever been turned down for a job and later been thankful as something better came up?
Or had a relationship end only to find a more meaningful relationship with someone else?
Whilst I can relate to both of the above experiences and many more like it, I recall a personal experience where I had around 3 years of stress related illnesses. I am firstly thankful that I made a full recovery, but equally thankful that it inspired me to shift to the life and work I live and love today.
I remember working with a Naturopath, as part of my support and recovery process, who said that when I could look back on the experience and say thanks, I would know I am on the other side of it. Whilst the whole experience took many years from end to end, and came with many highs and lows, I did and I am.
In these instances, we may be able to choose to see the blessing in the experience, if only by looking back and seeing that it helped us to learn and grow. Or in my example change pretty much everything.
Lewis Howes, in his book ‘The School of Greatness’talks about creating a grateful mindset which he calls an ‘Attitude of Gratitude’. He goes on to say that ‘Life is better if you develop an attitude of gratitude’.
Whilst there are times when this is easier said than done, or it is virtually impossible to make sense of an awful situation or this crazy world, for the most part I concur.
5 scientifically backed reasons to be grateful
As mentioned previously, there is quite a bit of research on the topic of practising gratitude which I hope will give, in particular those of you who like the facts, the inspiration to give an ‘attitude of gratitude’ your best shot. Here are 5 examples:
1.Grateful people are happier
An article in the Huffington Post, ‘The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Happier’quotes - ‘If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude then you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness’.
Included in the article is a ten-week study, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis, along with his colleague Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, which links practising gratitude to happiness levels.
All participants in the study were asked to keep a short journal and were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
Group one was asked to journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week.
Group two, five daily hassles that displeased them from the same period.
A neutral group were asked to list five things that affected them – they were not asked to focus on these being either positive or negative.
After the study, participants in group one reported feeling better about their lives as a whole and were recorded as being 25% happier than group two.
How incredible is that and in only 10 weeks!
2. Grateful people sleep better
Researchers at the University of Manchester conducted a study on how gratitude influences sleep. The study group comprised of 186 men and 215 women of all ages, 40% of whom experienced sleep disorders.
Questionnaires were used to determine the levels of gratitude and measure sleep performance.
What they found was that gratitude resulted in more positive and less negative thoughts prior to bedtime. This, in turn, had a positive impact on sleep quality and duration.
We have all experienced times when our mind seemingly gets stuck on repeat, mulling over something that didn’t go so well today, or that we are worrying about tomorrow.
Developing a bedtime gratitude practice seems may be one way to switch the mind’s channel to a more positive one, and in turn see you drifting off into a more restful sleep.
I was fortunate enough to see Wayne Dyer present, where he said something like ‘if you focus on what you are grateful for before you go to sleep, then that is what you will marinate in overnight’. I love that thought.
3.Grateful people have better health and wellbeing
The Greater Good Magazine published an article ‘A “Thnx” a day keeps the Doctor Away’ detailing data captured in response to the launch of a gratitude journal.
What they found was that participants who kept an online gratitude journal for two weeks had a happier disposition and reported more positive (e.g. happy, inspired, loving) and fewer negative (e.g. sad, bored, discouraged)emotions.
They also reported better physical health including fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, and reduced congestion.
These results are consistent with the study conducted by Emmons and McCullough, listed above, who also saw group one participants report fewer overall health complaints than those in group 2 (such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles and nausea).
4. Grateful people have better relationships
An article in Psychology Today ‘How Gratitude Influences Loving Behaviour’references the research by Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult, and Keijsers (2011).
Kubacka and colleagues, looked at the effects of gratitude on loving relationship maintenance behaviours, specifically how it influences behaviours towards a spouse over time. Results listed were:
Spouses feel gratitude for a partner when they perceive that partner's behaviour as being responsive to their needs.
That feeling of gratitude then motivates behaviour in return that is responsive back to the needs of the partners.
When that reciprocal behaviour is perceived by the partner, feelings of gratitude result in them as well.
A positive cycle develops over time, with increasing gratitude and caring behaviour for both individuals.
So, in simplistic terms, when you express gratitude to a partner you create the potential for a gratitude loop to develop, where both parties feel grateful and behave in a loving way towards each other. I think that’s known as a win win.
A study by Nathanial M Lambert and Frank D Finchamof couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner, not only felt more positive towards them, but, also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
On the flip side of this, Dr. John Gottmanproclaimed that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater) then it is likely the marriage will end.
Gottman can apparently predict in just 3 minutes, with 90% accuracy, which marriages are likely to succeed.
His formula is that for every one negative interaction (i.e. complaint, put down, angry exchange, frown) there needs to be five positive ones (i.e. smiles, laughter, compliments and you got it – expressions of appreciation and gratitude).
5.Grateful people are more resilient
Resilience is our ability to effectively deal with the ebbs and flows of life, and to recover swiftly from challenging or stressful events.
When faced with a stressful situation our body initiates its sympathetic nervous system, often called the fight and flight response, which is part of the autonomic nervous system.
Here our body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and enters a heightened state of physical and mental alert – ready to face the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger. In simplistic terms, a number of the bodies systems are prioritised, to prepare us to fight or flight, and those not necessary to get us out of a tricky situation are deprioritised.
Makes sense when you think about it. We need things like our heart to pump faster and muscles primed, but don’t need our digestive or immune systems, to get us out of real or perceived danger?
Whilst the sympathetic nervous system has its uses, heightened or prolonged stress can come with a whole host of negative impacts to physical and mental wellbeing.
Studies have shown that gratitude is one practice we can utilise to help dispel stress hormones and bring the body back to a more advantageous state, where its systems function more optimally.
One such study, included in a Positive Psychology article, ‘The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How it Affects Anxiety and Grief’is from McCraty and Colleagues (1998).
In their study on gratitude and appreciation, they found that participants who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in one of the stress hormones, cortisol, and had better cardiac functioning. They were also shown to be more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.
The article goes on to say that by reducing stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude can also have a positive influence in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Challenging and stressful situations are inevitable, and some may require the involvement and support of a medical professional. However, it seems that grateful people are, at times, able to maintain perspective and bounce back sooner.
Putting Gratitude into Practice
There are many ways to go about enhancing your wellbeing, and practising gratitude is definitely one that is achievable for most and comes with some pretty significant benefits.
In saying that, going from seeing the downside to the upside, or from obstacles to opportunities, is not always an easy shift.
Creating a habit of being grateful takes effort but, with practise, creating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is doable.
If you would like to build some practices into your life, that develop your relationship with gratitude, here are some suggestions.
Have a moan
Yes really! Notice everything, or at least a few things if the list is long, that are getting in the way of your gratitude and write them down.
I appreciate there may be some people reading this who are going through a significant life event, and if this is on your list then I suggest you stop this exercise here. I would of course, in this instance, recommend you seek the support of a medical professional.
For most of us, we may have a few of life’s lemons on the list, and thus sticking our heads in the sand, and pretending everything is hunky dory, is likely to result in inner turmoil. Trying to plonk a positive emotion on top of a negative one is called stacking emotions. This can result in negative emotions becoming louder, even outrageous when ignored.
One way to overcome this is, to give your negative emotions an airing first, by writing them down, reflecting upon and acknowledging them.
Once you have done this, take a look at your list again and see if you can
reframe the items with a more positive lens?