“Thanks!” “Thank you!” “I appreciate this!” “I am grateful!”
These meaningful words are not used nearly enough despite all that we could be grateful for or appreciate in life. Too often we allow negative thoughts, feelings or experiences to lead us to overlook or minimize gifts or blessings we receive in life, which dampens our feelings or expression of gratitude.
In my previous column I provided a brief overview of positive psychology and discussed why positivity is beneficial for clients and those who provide services to clients and families experiencing a behavioral health disorder. I discussed Marty Seligman and the late Christopher Petersen’s seminal work in which they discuss virtues and character strengths (2004). They suggest we identify and build upon our personal character strengths and develop and use additional ones. One of the six virtues identified by Seligman and Petersen is transcendence, which involves connecting with the larger world and provides meaning to life. This virtue shows in appreciation of beauty, spirituality, gratitude, hope, and humor.
In this column I focus on one specific area that I think is important to our well-being and our relationships: gratitude. People who feel grateful, thankful or appreciative also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, and enthusiastic (Emmons, 2013). Gratitude benefits those who feel and express it as well as those who receive gestures of gratitude.
Definitions of Gratitude
The term gratitude comes from gratia, a Latin word that means grace, graciousness or gratefulness; derivatives of this word have to do with kindness, generosity, gifts, and the beauty of giving and receiving (Emmons, 2013). Emmons, one of the leading researchers on this topic, defines gratitude as being thankful for and having readiness to show appreciation for and to return the kindness received from others (2007). This kindness results from receiving a gift from another person, or for a behavior of another exhibited that benefitted us. Seligman and Petersen (2004) define gratitude as a state of thankfulness or joy in response to receiving a tangible gift from another person or experiencing bliss from natural beauty.
This kind of gratitude is about feeling grateful towards a person as a result of a gift they provided to us, a helpful behavior they showed or a skill they taught us. Or, this can be feeling grateful for a specific person being part of our lives such as appreciation for a parent, other family member or intimate friend, sponsor or peer in recovery. Gifts we receive from others are endless and may include:
- Help with a problem, decision or specific task
- Help with recovery from an addiction, mental health problem, health problem or other problem in life
- Love and emotional support
- Spiritual guidance
- Academic or career guidance
- Mentoring or learning life skills
- Financial assistance or guidance
- Something personal of value mainly to those receiving the gift such as a photo, an object of personal beauty, a personal note or letter or an opportunity for an experience (an event, travel, meeting someone of significance)
These are just a few gifts from others, but there are many more. When we experience gratitude as a result of another’s actions, we are more likely to do something for them that they may appreciate or feel grateful about. When my wife died of cancer more than ten years ago, several friends showed incredible kindness, love, and support during a difficult time in my life. In addition to deep gratitude to them, I made it a point to connect with other friends or colleagues who lost loved ones. I felt the gifts given to me during my bereavement were ones that needed to be given or shared with others experiencing grief. These include gifts of emotional support, time shared in person, discussion on the phone, and in some cases, practical gifts such as meals or help cleaning my house.
We sometimes take gifts we receive in life for granted. Or, we may feel grateful but not express this in what we say or not show it in our actions. Sometimes our gratitude is expressed years later to someone who made a significant impact on us from what they gave us. I once sent a personal letter and dedicated a book to a man who was a huge positive influence on me during my adolescence. We had a wonderful conversation about this many years after I sent this letter or book. Hearing what it meant to him was heartwarming and I felt so good about sharing my gratitude with him.
This form of gratitude involves feeling grateful to a higher power for the gifts received in life. You may feel grateful for a physical gift such as athletic ability; a psychological gift such as resilience to bounce back from adversity; a creative gift such as an artistic or musical talent; or for opportunities provided to you in life. Gratitude can also be felt as a result of the the beauty experienced in nature such as a sunrise, a sunset, a snowstorm, a beautiful mountain, river or lake, an animal or insect, and other things of beauty. I experienced intense gratitude to God (and to my late wife and her medical team) when I watched our children being born and then held them soon after they entered the world.
Blocks to Expressing Gratitude
Acknowledging and expressing gratitude is easy for some of us, but difficult for those who lack skills in managing their emotions or those whose nature is more pessimistic. A lack of self-awareness or self-reflection can lead to taking others or positive emotions or experiences for granted. Too much focus on negative thoughts, feelings or experiences can also interfere with feeling or expressing gratitude. How can we feel grateful if our anger is simmering and controlling our thoughts and emotional state? Feeling entitled to receive gifts from others or feeling like a victim due to difficult experiences in life can be blocks to expressing gratitude as well.
Benefits of Gratitude
According to researchers, there are many benefits to expressing gratitude based on research conducted over the past decade or so. These benefits may include any of the following (Emmons, 2013; Lyubomirsky, 2013:
- Emotional or psychological: reduction of anxiety, depression or stress; feeling less envy, resentment or regret towards others; increase in positive emotions or feelings such as optimism, joy, happiness, love, enthusiasm or other feelings; or increase in satisfaction with life
- Physical: feeling healthier with a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, fewer physical symptoms; less bothered by aches or pains; better sleep; more energy; and exercise more and take better care of overall health. For example, a well-known study that followed nuns for over six decades found that longevity was higher among nuns with more positive emotional expressions (gratitude, love, hope, happiness). There was a 2.5-fold difference between the highest and lower quartiles of this study with a mean difference of 6.9 years of life for nuns with more positive emotional experiences.
- Interpersonal relationships: feel less lonely and isolated; more outgoing and make more friends; more helpful, altruistic, generous, empathic and compassionate with others; stronger bond between friends or romantic partners; and more likely to forgive another person
- Other: achieve more in life; make more money
This is an impressive list of potential benefits to incorporating and expressing gratitude in life. The challenge is to take action to insure we acknowledge gifts we receive, and express gratitude towards other people and our higher power.
Ways to Increase Gratitude in Daily Life
Following are strategies that can help you increase gratitude in your life. The key is making gratitude expression a habit that you regularly practice so that you appreciate the gifts you receive in life (physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, personal talents and strengths, opportunities, financial, other) and express your gratefulness to others (Daley & Douaihy, 2013; Emmons, 2013).
Pay attention to gifts or blessings you receive in your daily life, no matter how small. Each day you can identify and reflect on one or more experiences, interactions or other gifts or blessings you receive. I keep a gratitude file with personal notes and cards people send me in which they express gratitude to me for something I did for them or gave them.
Minimize or stop expressing feelings of ingratitude. Try not to let negative thoughts or feelings get in the way of appreciating things for which you should feel grateful. It is so easy to focus more on the negative and less on the positive that changing this requires effort.
Make a conscious effort to catch yourself when you feel nongrateful thoughts. Then, replace these with more grateful thoughts.
Share your gratitude in what you say to others. Simple expressions of “thank you” or “I appreciate that” go a long way. Others will appreciate hearing these from you.
Don’t Take Your Partner for Granted
If you are married or involved in an intimate relationship, make sure you share your positive feelings of gratitude in what you say or what you do. Even small gestures can make a big impact. There are endless ways to do things for your spouse or partner to show your gratitude and appreciation.
Show gratitude in your behaviors. You can write a personal note, send a card, give a gift or do something helpful, kind or altruistic towards a person whom you feel grateful. It can be something small or something more significant.
Don’t Take Others for Granted
This is easy to do, but people most important in your life will appreciate words or gestures than convey your gratitude towards them.
Write about experiences or people you feel grateful about. Write in a gratitude journal as often as you want. Reflect each day or week about people, experiences, things or gifts that you appreciate or feel grateful about. Or, write a gratitude letter to someone towards whom you feel deep gratitude. You can keep this letter to yourself or send it. Some people find it meaningful to read or deliver in person their gratitude letter.
Engage in Spirituality
Express your gratitude through spiritual disciplines. Many religions and spiritual practices offer numerous ways to express gratitude such as in prayer, confession, meditation, connecting with others as part of a spiritual fellowship, and being of service to others.
If you are in recovery from addiction or a psychiatric disorder, make a real effort to give back to others. You can do this by serving as a sponsor, peer mentor or support person in recovery.
Reflect on Blessings
Make it a habit to reflect on your blessings. You can do this at the end of each day or week. You simply review the day or week, and identify positive people or experiences and related feelings of gratitude.
Feeling grateful and expressing gratitude can easily be incorporated into daily life. Many benefits to us, and others, come from focusing on people, experiences, gifts or blessings we receive. The challenge is to be aware and not take others and our gifts for granted.
References and Suggested Readings
Daley, D. C., & Douaihy, D. (2010). Gratitude. Murrysville, PA: Daley Publications.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.
Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works! A twenty-one-day program for creating emotional prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Petersen, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
If you enter “gratitude” on any search engine, you will be led to many websites or blogs that address this topic. Two excellent ones include the following:
- Daily Good (Robert Emmons): www.daily.good.org
- Greater Good Science Center: www.greatergood.berkeley.edu