Musing recently about gratitude in my Gardening/Positive Psychology blog, I came across the work of psychologist Robert Emmons who has dedicated his whole career to researching the effect of a single emotion (gratitude) in our lives. How important is it, how to nurture and build more of it for ourselves.
Here are his ten evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful,:
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. One of the best ways to do this is keeping a daily journal in which you record the blessings you are grateful for. Emmons’ extensive research has shown that this technique makes people happier. When we are grateful, we affirm that a source of goodness exists in our lives. By writing each day, we magnify and expand upon these sources of goodness. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with even mundane or ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave and thread together a sus- tainable life theme of gratefulness, just as it nourishes a fundamental life stance whose thrust is decidedly affirming.
So you begin by cataloging, each day, gratitude-inspiring events. It does not much matter whether you begin each day journaling or make your list the last thing you do at the end of the day. There is no one right way to do it. You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar. The important thing is to establish the daily habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events; a daily regimen is what is required. The act of writing them down translates your thoughts into words. Psychological research has shown that translating thoughts into concrete language – words, whether oral or written – has advantages over just thinking the thoughts. Writing helps to organize thoughts and facilitate integration, and also helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life. Writing about unpleasant, even traumatic events is widely recommended by therapists. In the context of gratitude journaling, it may help you bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to a difficult life situation.
Your gratitude list must be periodically updated. It is important not to allow your catalog to become stale. It is true that in the first few days of journaling the content might be a bit redundant. Overlap is fine, but literal repetition should be avoided. It may even produce the opposite effect from that intended. One can only imagine, after weeks of this repetitive process, one writing, “My life is so empty! All I have is my cat, my dog, and my apartment!”
2. Remember the Bad
For most people, life is generally perceived to be pleasant. Research has shown that memories of past events tend to be biased toward the positive. A recent study showed that over 90 percent of research participants listed more pleasant than unpleasant autobiographical memories. Despite this preference for the positive, there is no reason why the blessings that are listed in our daily gratitude inventories should be only pleasant. We need to remember the bad things as well.
When we remember how difficult life used to be and how far we have come, we set up an explicit contrast in our mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.
Why would remembering the worst that life offered be an effective strategy for cultivating gratitude? Because it capitalizes upon natural mental tools and normal human thought processes. For one, psychological research has established the empirical truth that “bad is stronger than good.” Negative stimuli often evince powerful reactions that can be difficult to ignore or surmount. The adversities of life, seasoned with strong emotions, are deeply etched in our memories and for this reason are easy to recall. Yet a competing tendency is that the feelings associated with unpleasant events tend to fade faster than the feelings associated with pleasant events. We yearn to reconcile with our ex-spouse because the memories of stormy encounters and icy contempt have faded. Therefore, to be grateful in our current union, it is helpful to remember just how awful a previous marriage was.
Second, our minds think in terms of counterfactuals – mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. At times these counterfactuals may be counterproductive to our mental well-being, as we lament opportu nities lost or regrets over what might have been. But we can harness the power of counterfactual thinking by reminding ourselves of how much worse life might be than it is.
- What have I received from X?
- What have I given to X (or Y)?
- What troubles and difficulty have I caused X, or Y?
These questions can help us address issues or relationships. It helps us to see the reciprocal quality of relationships and provides a structure for self-reflection. This can be directed toward work situations, social interactions, or toward developing higher aspects of oneself.
The first step or question involves recognizing all the gifts we receive. Remembering a person’s smile, kind words, or helpful actions can elicit feelings of gratitude. When we focus on the good that comes to us every day, we can be filled with deep appreciation rather than drowning under the burden of our problems. Once when I traveled, I reflected on how many people were responsible for helping me get from Point A to Point B. Having arrived at my hotel room, I was shocked by the sheer number who were involved (the shuttle bus driver, ticket agent, baggage handler, security screener, pilots and flight attendants, rental car agent, and hotel desk clerk, among others; I’m sure I left some out). Focusing on what these people are giving has reduced the stress of travel for me far more than any other factor.
Next we focus on what we give to others. This helps us realize how connected we are to others and helps remove a sense of entitlement that might come from feeling that we are due things from others without a need to give back. Ask yourself the question: In what ways might I “give back” to others as an appropriate response for the gratitude I feel? Be creative in finding ways to give back for the many blessings you have received. At the very least, l owe and I express a heartfelt thank-you for all those people in the previous example.
The last step is a difficult one of acknowledging not the things that bother us, but how we cause pain in the lives of others by our thoughts, words, and deeds. The author Greg Krech, who wrote on the practice of Naikan, says of this step, “If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, then we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.”
This practice of asking the three questions can be practiced daily for twenty minutes or so in the evening. It can be used to reflect on the day’s activities in a general way. Another method is to reflect on a specific relationship over a period of fifty to sixty minutes. One can view a relationship chronologically or focus on a particular situation that might need attention. Regardless of the relationships under meditation, the process of Naikan emphasizes two themes: (1) the discovery of personal guilt for having been ungrateful toward people in the past and (2) the discovery of feelings of positive gratitude to- ward those persons who have extended themselves on behalf of the person in the past or present.
4. Learn Prayers/Poems of Gratitude
Surveys have revealed that people spend more time praying than doing just about anything else. 72 percent of people asked say that they pray at least once a day; 75 percent of people say they would like to spend more time in prayer, and over half (51 percent) say they pray before a meal. Most of the prayers are casually conversational rather than liturgically formal.
Prayer is at the front and center of the spiritual life. It has been referred to as “the soul and essence of religion” and “the most spontaneous and personal expression of intimacy with the divine.” Prayers of gratitude are among the most common form of prayer, and religious scriptures of various traditions are replete with prayers of this type. Even college students, who are not generally regarded as a particularly prayerful group, pray prayers of thanksgiving more frequently than any other type of prayer (except for petitionary requests).
If prayer in a spiritual or religious vein is not your thing, one can access a similar sense of gratitude by learning a poem by heart. This is something I’ve explored in my By Heart Project – with a number of the poems I’ve chosen to learn falling in some way into the category of Poems of Gratitude/Prayer.
A few of my favourites:
5. Come to Your Senses
Good health; being alive; no more skin allergies; I’m not fat; white teeth; exercise; eyes; ears; touch; physical strength; afternoon nap; ability to breathe; modern medicine, energy to get through the day; no broken bones. Each of these bodily-related blessings appeared in journals that Emmons’ research participants have kept. The physicality of gratitude is noticeable as gratefulness for the functioning of one’s body, recovery from illness, or for just being alive are some of the most commonly mentioned themes. Nearly 80 percent of his research participants say they are grateful for their health, or the health of family members, making it the most cited trigger of gratitude. Another frequently mentioned source of gratitude is the senses – the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear.
In her remarkable book The Natural History of the Senses, the author Diane Ackerman wrote that “nothing is more memorable than a smell.” Smells transport us back to earlier times, perhaps to childhood vacations, or adolescent romances, or family holiday traditions that we now look back on with nostalgic gratitude.
Through our senses, we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human, of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Could there be a more fitting response than that of joyous gratitude? For millennia, poets, philosophers, and physicians have praised the miraculous and beautiful nature of the body. Seen through the lens of gratitude, however, the body is more than a miraculous construction. It is a gift, freely and gratuitously given, whether one perceives the giver to be God, evolution, or good family genes. Even though some bodily parts may not function as reliably as they once did, if you can breathe, there is cause for gratitude.
Dr. Frederic Luskin suggests in his popular book, Forgive For Good, the following exercise, which he calls the “Breath of Thanks”:
- Two or three times every day when you are not fully occupied, slow down and bring your attention to your breathing.
- Notice how your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything … continue breathing this way.
- For each of the next five to eight exhalations, say the words “thank you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how lucky you are to be alive. He suggests practicing this at least three times per week.
It is a good reminder that gratitude begins with the basics. Breathing gratitude is a practice that is available to all of us, regardless of our current life circumstances.
6. Use Visual Reminders
Enter Emmons’ family home and one of the first things you will see is a ceramic plaque above the hallway mirror with the words GIVE THANKS carved in the center. Help yourself to a drink from the refrigerator and you might see a magnet on the door quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery … today is a gift.” Now go over to the family room and look at the bookcase to the right of the windows. On one shelf is a pewter paperweight given to him by a close friend containing a passage from the author Melody Beattie: “Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend:’
Two of the primary obstacles to being grateful are (1) forgetfulness and (2) a lack of mindful awareness. Forgetfulness. That human tendency. We forget our benefactors, we forget to take time to count our blessings, and we forget the many ways in which our lives are made easier because of the efforts of others. Awareness is a pre- condition for gratitude: we must have noticed whatever we are to be thankful for – we cannot be thankful for something of which we are unaware. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves and to become aware.
Some people attach Post-it notes listing blessings to their refrigerators, mirrors, steering wheels, or other noticeable locations. Others set their pagers, beepers, or phones to signal them at random times throughout the day. When they are signaled, they pause and count their blessings on the spot. A trial lawyer found that his shower each morning evokes thankfulness, for he had spent considerable time in remote areas where hot water was an unthinkable gift.
We might even want to consider an accountability partner to remind us to be grateful. Accountability partners make us, well, accountable. We become answerable to a trusted inner circle or partner who will challenge us when we begin to stray off the moral path. Just as it is easier to maintain the discipline of physical exercise when you have a partner, maintaining the discipline of gratefulness also benefits from a partner with whom you can swap gratitude lists and who will challenge your ungrateful thoughts.
It stands to reason that an accountability partner would be effective in kindling our sense of gratitude. Gratitude is, after all, a social emotion that is activated in relational contexts. You might find yourself developing a deep sense of gratefulness toward your accountability partner that then generalizes to others in your social sphere.
7. Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude
There is some research which shows that swearing a vow to perform a behaviour actually does increase the likelihood that the action will be executed. In one such study, members of a local YMCA who decided to participate in the Twelve-Week Personal Fitness Program agreed to “exercise three days per week for twelve weeks and beyond at the Y.” Once making the decision to participate, the experimental group was sworn to perform the promised behaviour. A second group signed a written commitment to perform the promised behaviour, and a third, control group, did not make any form of commitment.
The impact of the manipulation was examined for its effect on adherence to the program. Subjects in the vow condition did demonstrate greater adherence than the other conditions as measured by consecutive weeks of three exercise sessions without relapse.
Why is swearing an oath an effective motivator of behaviour? For one, a vow, when made before others, constitutes a public pronouncement of an intention to perform an action. Breaking a vow thereby becomes a profound moral failure (as dissolution of a marriage is for those who taking wedding vows seriously). Fear of sanctions, either internal (in the form of guilt) or external (in the form of social disapproval) is a powerful motivator.
What might a vow to practice gratitude look like? It need not be elaborate. It could be something as simple as “I vow to not take so many things in my life for granted. I vow to pause and count my blessings at least once each day. I vow to express gratitude to someone who has been influential in my life and whom I’ve never properly thanked.” If your vow is formalized, post it somewhere conspicuous where you will be frequently reminded of it. Better yet, share it with your accountability partner.
8. Watch Your Language
In the late 1930s, the amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the theory that language determines the nature and content of thought. This “Whorfian” hypothesis inspired decades of research in a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education. To this day, it has not been completely disputed or defended but has continued to intrigue researchers around the world. Many have adopted a weaker form of the hypothesis, namely that language influences how we think rather than determining, in a rigid fashion, the very content of the thoughts.
I introduce the Whorfian theory here because of its relevance for thinking about how to stimulate more grateful living. The way we describe events in our lives, and ultimately, life itself, is a direct window on how we perceive and interpret life. This theory says that the language we use influences how we think about the world. Carried further, the Whorfian view is that the words we use create reality.
Compare grateful discourse with ungrateful discourse. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style. They tend to use the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, abundance. They traffic in the discourse of thankfulness. Ungrateful people, on the other hand, tend to focus on deprivation, deservingness, regrets, lack, need, scarcity, loss.
A low and depressed part of us can sometimes walk around chronically engaged in negative self-talk (“Nobody likes me,” ‘I’ll never find a partner;’ ”I’m such a loser;’ and so on). “We are what we think about all day long,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The talk becomes so automatic that we don’t even realize that we are doing it or realize the pervasive effect it is having. We can change our mood by engaging in some kind of dialogue with that part and see if we can have some kind of dialogue with it, rather than just letting it continue to monologue itself into an even deeper depression.
An ingenious series of experiments conducted a number of years ago showed that when people mimicked the facial expressions associated with happiness, they felt happier – even when they did not know they were moving the “happy muscles” in their face. Researchers have found that smiling itself produces feelings of happiness. How were they kept in the dark? Simple. They were asked to hold a pencil with their teeth. Doing so tends to activate the muscle we use when we smile (the zygomatic major). This muscle lifts the corner of the mouth obliquely upwards and laterally and produces a characteristic smiling expression. Try it now. You will smile. Now, take that pencil and hold it in your lips, pointing it straight out. A different set of muscles are now activated, those that are involved in frowning (these are the ones targeted by Botox treatments). Why this clever ruse? You can’t let subjects in the study know that they are supposed to be feel-ing happy, because that would have unintended consequences on the behavioral rating of interest.
It turned out that the people with the pencils in their teeth, who were, unbeknownst to them, activating their zygomatic muscles, rated cartoons funnier than those who held the pencils with their lips. It appears that going through the motions can trigger the emotion. Technically stated, involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience.
The relevance for practicing gratitude is direct. If we go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. What is a grateful motion? Saying thank you. Writing letters of gratitude. Isn’t this the way we socialize our children to become grateful members of a civic society? Expressing gratitude toward someone whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank can have profoundly positive consequences, for both the person expressing and the recipient. Research I described in chapter 2 indicated that the positive glow resulting from sharing a gratitude letter can last for several months.
So what if the motion has to be forced? The important thing is to do it. Do it now, and the feeling will come. There is a great deal of psychological evidence showing that attitude change often follows behaviour change. Good intentions are often crushed by old habits. If we stand around waiting for a feeling to move us, we may never get going. Get a person to perform a behaviour, and, with some exceptions, their feelings will fall in line. Get people to attend church, and pretty soon they will start believing in what they are hearing. Get people to volunteer in soup kitchens, and they will become more generous. Effective churches plug people in right away. Effective managers know that successful training focuses on changing behaviour first. Marriage therapists tell spouses who have lost the love to pretend that they like each other. In each case, going through the motions can trigger the desired emotions, setting the stage for emotions to reinforce the behaviour.
10. Think Outside the Box
If we want to make the most out of opportunities to flex our gratitude muscles, then we must creatively look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful. Just when I thought I had fully grasped the conceptual basis of gratitude, an article came across my desk describing two “anomalous cases” of gratitude not fitting the usual dynamic of the giving and receiving of goodness between benefactor and beneficiary.
The first case is being grateful to those who do you harm. In other words, being grateful to our enemies. What a preposterous notion this seems to be. Because of our natural inclination to either defend or retaliate (the “flight or fight” response), this is a very difficult notion for most of us to comprehend. Yet this is a common idea within Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often repeats this Buddhist teaching by telling his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese for giving him the opportunity to practice love for his enemies. If love is too much to swallow, then be grateful that our enemies give us opportunities to practice patience. Similar examples can be found in other spiritual traditions. The Sufi poet Rumi writes about a priest who prays for his muggers:“Because they have done me such generous favours. Every time I turn back toward the things they want, I run into them, they beat me, and leave me nearly dead in the road, and I understand, again, that what they want is not what I want. They keep me on the spiritual path. That’s why I honor them and pray for them.
You may be able to more readily identify with the second anomalous case of gratitude. It is being grateful to someone whom you benefit. Individuals who perform volunteer work sometimes speak of the benefits they receive from their service and express gratitude for those who gave them the opportunity to serve. Mother Teresa often spoke of being grateful for the sick and dying she ministered to in the Calcutta slums, because they enabled her to deepen her compassion. The psychologists Ann Colby and William Damon studied “moral exemplars” – people who made extraordinary moral commitments to the social organizations where they volunteered or worked.
One quality that these moral exemplars had in common was a strong positive attitude – they took joy in their lives and were determined to make the best of whatever happened. Notably, they expressed this positivity as a deep gratitude for the satisfaction they got from their work, and especially, from helping others. Since service to others helped them to find their own inner spirituality, they were grateful for the opportunity to serve. These exemplars have a profound sense of themselves being gifted. Purposeful actions then flow from this sense of giftedness so that they can share and increase the very good they have received. We are reminded that gratitude is incomplete until it is manifested in outward action. We might often need if we want to feel good ourselves, as the psychologist Charles Shelton so fittingly describes, “give back the goodness.”