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During this festive season, gratitude—or thankfulness—is on a lot of people’s minds. Hundreds of millions of us celebrate holiday traditions that offer at least lip service to the concept. But true gratitude doesn’t always come easily. At times, when pain, uncertainty, turmoil or even inconvenience loudly demands our attention, it can take a conscious and intentional effort to focus on the good things in our lives. Gratitude is more than an emotion or a state of mind. It’s an acquired attitude and a practice that we can sharpen.
Why be grateful? We’re glad you asked. The fact is: Extensive research has suggested various mental health benefits linked to gratitude. Those of us who have chosen healthcare-related careers, who are familiar with the relationship of mental health to overall health, should recognize the power of gratitude.
Gratitude Can Boost Confidence
An attitude of gratitude can make you feel better about yourself and your situation. Psychologist Robert A. Emmons conducted an experimental comparison of people who kept weekly “gratitude journals” with others who recorded neutral events or hassles. The grateful group exercised more, reported fewer physical symptoms, and felt more optimistic about their overall lives and the coming weeks. In addition, over the next two months, they were more likely to have made progress toward personal goals. Recognizing our talents and other gifts can motivate us to put those gifts to the best possible use while resisting the urge to compare ourselves with others.
Gratitude Is Good for Relationships
Emmons also found that people who make a point of being grateful daily were more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support. His and other studies provide substantial evidence that gratitude strengthens relationships and promotes altruistic behavior such as charity and forgiveness.
Gratitude Is an Antidote
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University linked thankfulness to a significantly reduced risk of disorders including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence and drug abuse.
5 Strategies for Cultivating Gratitude
So how do you develop your sense of gratitude? As we suggested earlier, it takes practice. Here are five recommendations.
- Count your blessings. Sometimes the daily gifts we receive are so reliable that they become almost invisible. But take them away, and their absence is felt profoundly. The pandemic has hammered home the reality that we can’t take for granted our life, health, nourishment, shelter or employment. By showing appreciation for what we have, we develop awareness of and empathy for those who have less than we do.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This could simply be a written (or digital) list of the blessings you count. Or it could go deeper. Why are you grateful for each of these gifts? How have they enriched your life? The more time we spend reviewing and recording these positives, the less mental space we have to dwell on the negatives.
- Tell someone you’re grateful for them. Think of someone, past and present, who has touched your life. It could be a spouse or significant other, a friend or family member, a neighbor, a colleague, an employee, a boss, a former teacher or mentor, even a stranger who somehow brightens your day. A note, a phone call, a card, an email or a whisper in the ear from you might make that special person’s day, and make you feel better in the process. As a manager, you might discover that employees who know they are appreciated are motivated to work even harder. (You might also choose to reflect privately on the lasting influence of someone who is no longer physically present in your life.)
- Pay it forward. For a variety of reasons, it might not be possible or necessary to directly return a favor someone has done for you. But you can keep the chain of love going by doing a good turn for someone else, being generous with your time, expertise, money or goodwill.
- Pray and/or meditate. Whatever your religious beliefs, expressing gratitude to a higher power or even to the universe can increase your sense of joy even in difficult times. Alternatively, slowly breathe in and breathe out while tuning out distractions and focusing on the present, how you fit into the world and how you can help to make it a better place.
Consider using these five practices throughout this season—and all year long—to express gratitude for the good things in your life. Even if you have to think about it, your mental health will thank you, and in the process, you just might make a difference in someone else’s life.