If you’re the type of person who actively seeks ways to improve your quality of life, you’re likely to have come across a thing or two about the importance of gratitude. Just about every self-help book on the shelves makes mention of gratitude, and researcher after researcher has touted its many benefits. People who practice gratitude have been found to be more compassionate, more optimistic, more joyful, and more content with themselves and their lives. Gratitude has been associated with higher levels of positive emotions, stronger immune systems, and lower blood pressure. Clearly, it wields a great deal of power.
But for many people, gratitude doesn’t come naturally.
In a culture that values the attainment of more (more money, more friends, more social media “likes,” more material things), it’s easy for us to feel like we’re lacking. We’re flooded with messages that tell us we don’t have enough and, even worse, that we aren’t enough. We like to believe that if only we had the right salary, the right body type, the right car, the right romantic partner, the right house, then we could be satisfied. But it doesn’t quite work that way. You see, research has shown that when we think that acquiring certain things—like money, status, or fame—will make us happier, we’re only setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction. Just as soon as we get what we wanted, we come up with other things to aim for; and until we acquire those things, we remain discontented. Social scientists call this the hedonic treadmill effect: the more we get, the more we want, and the more we want, the more unhappy we are.
The biggest problem with the hedonic treadmill is that once you step on, it’s really tough to hop off. However, there’s one thing that works particularly well for escaping this dilemma. Yep, you guessed it; it’s gratitude.
People who cultivate a sense of gratitude are able to appreciate and enjoy their lives, regardless of their external circumstances. They understand that by acknowledging what they have to give thanks for, they’re generating a sense of contentment and satisfaction that isn’t dependent on outside sources. If you’re one of those people who lives in gratitude, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not one of those people but would like to be, here are a few ways you can begin to practice more gratitude in your life:
1) Greet Each Day Gratefully – The first thing many people do upon waking up is grumble about the fact that it’s morning. They grumpily get out of bed and start the day lethargically, begrudging the fact that they can’t sleep any longer. What we do when we first wake up has the potential to shape our entire day. That’s why the best time to practice gratitude is first thing in the morning. Before getting out of bed, think of five things you're grateful for. You might say to yourself something like, “This morning I’m grateful for this comfortable bed, for having a reason to wake up in the morning, for the light of the beautiful sun shining through my window, for my air conditioner, and for the clothes I’ll wear to work today.” Reflecting on how fortunate you are automatically brightens your mood, and emerging from bed in that spirit will set the tone for your day. You may come up with your own practice, but however you do it, maintain the intention of shaping your day with thankfulness.
2) Keep a Gratitude Journal – Researchers who study gratitude suggest that keeping a written record of the things we’re grateful for can have tremendous psychological and emotional benefits. Not only does the act of writing down things you’re thankful for put you in a positive mind state, it also allows you to put your experiences in context and create meaning in your life. The results of studies on gratitude journaling suggest that the practice is most effective when it’s done intentionally. In other words, people get the most of out it when they take their time to think about what they’re grateful for and experience the emotions that arise while they write it down. Researchers recommend writing about five items each time, and journaling only a couple of times per week rather than every day. So what are you waiting for? Get the lead out, and get grateful!
3) Make the Switch – Have you heard it said that we create our own reality? What about the saying, “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it”? Well, there’s great wisdom in these expressions. As we go through life, we get to choose how to perceive what we experience. And what we choose makes all the difference. For example, sitting in traffic on your morning commute can either be agonizing or enjoyable. If you think, “I hate traffic! I wish I didn’t have to deal with this in the morning. I’m so jealous of people who work from home,” you’re going to feel really lousy. And who wants to feel lousy when you have a choice to feel otherwise? If you think, “I’m so grateful to have a car that gets me to work. I’m grateful to have the extra time to myself that I can use to listen to music and relax before the work day begins,” you generate an entirely different feeling. Suddenly that morning commute isn’t so bad. And it’s not just traffic that can be transformed this way. We can switch our minds to gratitude in absolutely every situation. It’s all a matter of focus. The best part is that when you regularly practice switching your perspective to look for what you’re grateful for rather than what’s lacking, you train your brain to pay attention in this way more often. Do this long enough and you’ll automatically see the upside without having to give it much effort.
4) Get Grateful Through Giving – One of the best ways to be reminded of what you have to be grateful for is to keep company with someone who’s less fortunate than you are. Most of us can agree that it feels really good to give to others; it serves as a reminder of our abundance. Volunteer work, service, and random acts of kindness are all incredible ways to cultivate a sense of gratitude. The more we give, the more we realize how much we have to give. And the more we realize that, the more grateful we become. When we give to others, we also give to ourselves. It’s the greatest win-win situation of all.
When you start getting grateful, you start to see your life transform right before you. You begin to realize that no matter what’s happening, there’s always something to be thankful for. Why not start getting grateful right here, right now? I challenge you to stay on this screen until you’ve named five things you’re grateful for.