Three years ago, I came across several articles on the benefits of gratitude and decided that each morning I would write down a few things I was grateful for. I did it for a while and found it to be very unsatisfying. It felt very rote. I am grateful for my kids, my husband, my friend who I had dinner with last night, the person who let me get ahead of her in line at the supermarket. Nice but not life transforming.
I was recently given the book Gratitude Works! by Robert Emmons and learned that I had been doing it wrong. I also learned that gratitude has enormous benefits and that gratitude can be learned.
So, what are the benefits? Emmons, a psychologist on the faculty of the University of California Davis and a pre-eminent gratitude researcher, has concluded that gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and personal satisfaction of any personality trait. Increased gratitude results in increased well-being, alertness, enthusiasm, determination, empathy and healing. Other researchers have linked it to better sleep and decreased aggression.
Clifford Hass, professor of communication at Stanford, notes that it is simply human nature to notice and pay attention to what is going wrong rather than what is going right. He said, “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.” Roy Baumeister, professor of social psychology at Florida State University in an article called “Bad is Stronger than Good,” wrote that “Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” Gratitude is a strategy for seeing the good at least as much as the bad or inconvenient.
So, now that you know why cultivating gratitude is worthwhile, I want to return to what I was doing wrong when I simply listed a few items for which I was grateful. I had an insight into gratitude about a year ago, well before I received the book, that is confirmed by Emmons and other researchers. The occasion was having a great conversation with my friend. I don’t remember the subject of the conversation but I do remember noticing that I felt grateful for this friendship and for the liveliness of our conversation. I had a feeling of openness and expansiveness. I realized then that gratitude was something to be felt, not just something to think about the next day and jot down. But that was only the tip of the gratitude iceberg. I still didn’t understand gratitude in all of its fullness.
Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist who studies positive emotions says, “Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness about something you have been given.” So I was right that it is a feeling not just a mental notation. Hanson recommends dwelling on the feeling for ten to twenty seconds. On the jacket of the book “Words of Gratitude” by Emmons and Hill it is taken a step further. They say, “Learning how to experience gratitude involves being grateful as an attitude, not as a reaction when good things occur.” Emmons elaborates, “to have a momentary experience of gratitude is not the same as having a well-honed grateful disposition. People who are disposed toward gratitude are more apt to notice what is going right in their lives.” Emmons and his colleagues describe four facets of gratitude:Intensity:
1.How intensely the gratitude feels
2. Frequency: How often one feels gratitude
3. Span: The number of circumstances for which a person feels grateful at a given time
4. Density: The number of persons to whom one feels grateful for a positive situation
Researchers at the University of Minnesota estimated that gratitude is 40% inherited leaving 60% within our control. Since I failed at gratitude the first time I tried it, I have decided to try again with the guidance of Dr. Emmons who has looked at not only the effects of gratitude but the best ways to practice. He describes these in Gratitude Works! which is largely a “how to” book on cultivating gratitude.
He suggests taking at least five to ten minutes for this process. It is important to write, not just think about situations, things and people for which you are grateful. As you write, go into detail. Not just, “I appreciate that my friend, Joan, invited me to her birthday lunch.” But rather, “I really felt honored that Joan invited me to be among her closest friends for her birthday. She made us a great lunch herself of cold salmon and salad and the cake was wonderful. I really enjoyed meeting her friend, Karen, who I’ll see again…such a great afternoon.” Stay with it. You can use the entire ten minutes describing and savoring the birthday lunch.
Attempt to link the event to a sensation of gratitude, a deep feeling of joy or wonder or happiness. Surprises tends to evoke feeling of gratitude – receiving something for absolutely no reason, seeing a rainbow, petting a dog.
Much of gratitude is learning not to take things for granted. Emmons recommends cultivating the understanding that we are constantly receiving gifts and that we are not entitled to anything. He suggests that we consider and write about how something we love might not have come to be. Dutch Scientist Nico Frijda spoke about “constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is and how it could have been otherwise.” (6)
I highly recommend Robert Emmons books. Gratitude Works! It is a wonderful roadmap for developing a way to move forward in cultivating gratitude. I also recommend a short article by Rick Hanson called “The importance of Gratitude and Gladness for a Happy Life”. (7)
Please let me know if you try this in any way and how it works. You can find my contact information below.