Gratitude: A Practice for Well-Being
By Carryn Lund, LMSW
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a holiday that reminds us of the importance of pausing and giving thanks for all that we have in our lives. Long before we had established a holiday of thanks in America, many cultures and religions had adopted rituals around expressing gratitude for good fortune, health, and nature’s support of life.
Gratitude practice has long been known to be supportive of wellbeing. In recent decades, with the advent of positive psychology and an increased interest in researching symptoms and biomarkers of health, we now have research to help us know that gratitude is not just a feel-good exercise but also an avenue to supporting our health.
Why practice gratitude?
Shifting to a mindset of gratitude helps us focus on the good fortune in our lives rather than focusing on what is missing or getting focused on a new milestone that could bring us happiness.
There is a psychological phenomenon known as the “hedonic treadmill.” The concept of this is that we, as naturally adaptable human beings, tend to adjust rather quickly to external circumstances that bring us short-term happiness and feel subjectively less positivity from an external circumstance over time. Gratitude practice helps to balance this tendency by having us shift towards observing what is already abundant in our life. We shift from “I’ll be happier when…” to “I am already grateful for…”
A meta-analysis of the research around positive psychology practices, such as gratitude, supports that a regular gratitude practice can result in a reduction in depressive symptoms and an increase in subjective emotional wellbeing. Gratitude practice is also linked to lower levels of stress hormones, namely cortisol, in the body.
A particularly interesting study on gratitude practice and health was conducted in 2015 at UCSD (University of California - San Diego). This study found that patients with heart disease who practiced gratitude regularly reported better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, and even lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers.
How to practice
Gratitude practice seems to have the most benefits when done regularly and committed to for at least a few months, and it can be done in small ways that take relatively little time. Starting any amount of gratitude practice is likely to impact you positively and to build on itself over time. There tends to be a snowball effect in that the more we recognize what we are grateful for in our lives, the more we recognize what there is to be grateful for.
Simply try to find a way to practice that is appealing to you and approach the practice with an open mind.
Here are some ways you could practice gratitude:
Write a thank-you letter to someone, expressing gratitude for the way they have impacted you and detailing their kindnesses. This was a challenge that beloved University of Michigan positive psychology professor Christopher Peterson used to give to his students. He suggested even turning this into a gratitude visit if possible, reading the letter aloud to the recipient. His research suggested that, students unanimously reported positive feelings from the exercise and that adding a visit to the letter made the positive impact last up to a month.
Free-form journaling. Take some time to write about 2-3 things that you are grateful for each day. This was a task given to participants in a follow-up to the UCSD study described above, and had positive biological effects on heart disease patients.
Gratitude while commuting. As you drive to work or walk to run an errand, look around for things to be grateful for. You might start by noting the beauty of a leaf and soon be smiling while watching someone sing along to the radio.
Gratitude list. Write down a couple of things you are grateful for each morning or evening. A variation of this exercise may also be to then write about what caused this thing to be in your life, helping you see your own agency in creating good or to reflect on the interconnected nature of things. If you prefer to list in a journal, you might try The Five Minute Journal.
Meditate on gratitude. Hold in mind for a few moments present sensory experiences, whatever you are currently hearing or feeling, saying in your mind “For this, I am grateful.” In turn, hold in mind loved ones, whatever measure of health you currently have, and cherished experiences.
Gratitude is for kids and families too! Here are some suggestions of ways to practice gratitude as a family:
Keep a gratitude jar. Invite everyone in your family to put in something they are grateful for regularly. Perhaps at dinner, or every few weeks, pull out the slips of paper and read what everyone has been grateful for.
Three Good Things. As part of a bedtime routine, invite your child to share three things s/he is grateful for or three “good things” from their day, helping acknowledge their good fortune and sharing back.
Gratitude tree. For a family craft project, have everyone make “leaves” out of construction paper and write things they are grateful for on the leaves. Find somewhere to hang or stick them, like on an outline of a tree on a larger piece of paper or hanging them from a plant or small tree you may have inside your home.
Why I’m Grateful worksheet. Here’s a link to a free worksheet designed to help us reflect on good things happening around us.
Remember to start small, do what appeals to you, and try to enjoy the practice. Wishing you a season of good fortune, and good thanks.
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Mills, P., et al (2015). The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-Being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients. Spirituality in Clinical Practice.
Aaronson, L (2006). The Hidden Side of Happiness. Psychology Today. Available on: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200603/make-gratitude-adjustment
Sin & Lyubomirsky (2009). Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms With Positive Psychology Interventions: A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology.