As we slide into that time of year where we’re encouraged to give thanks and be grateful, it’s a good idea to take that advice to heart. While developing an “attitude of gratitude” might seem like just another platitude, there’s science indicating it’s actually good for us.
The formal study of gratitude’s benefits is relatively young, but researchers have found that gratitude can enhance well-being and improve romantic relationships, among other benefits. A 2011 study published in the journal Heart International found that acute cardiac patients who had positive psychological interventions actually had better outcomes than those who didn’t.
“The people for whom gratitude is more of a trait than a state, we see that those people tend to be healthier. They tend to be happier. They have stronger social connections and stronger relationships. There’s some evidence that people who are more optimistic or have a grateful attitude have higher immune functioning,” says Erin Olivo, clinical psychologist and Columbia University assistant clinical professor of medical psychology. Olivo is the author of Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life.
With those wide-ranging benefits, who wouldn’t want to be more grateful? Experts say it’s possible to train yourself to become more grateful so it’s not just an occasional state, but a regular habit.
While it might sound obvious, Cherie Dortch, a clinical psychologist, says that many times people are so focused on what they don’t have, they lose sight of the many reasons they may have to be grateful. Instead, shift your focus and be mindful of the everyday things that you would miss if you didn’t have them. There’s always something for which to be grateful, even during difficult times, she says.
“Sure, you have to pay the mortgage. But, you can be thankful that you have a roof over your head and the money to pay your bills,” she says.
Being grateful is an act of savoring, or appreciating the positive attributes of something, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley, which studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. When you mentally savor the things for which you’re grateful, you can better understand them and use them as a point of connection, and the act of giving thanks becomes more powerful, she says.
Think about the act or the situation, the effort that went into making it a reality, who played a role in making it happen, and how it benefits you. For example, if a coworker came through on a project, think about the sacrifices he or she made to devote the time to the project, how the person’s creativity and skill played a role, and how the successful project affects you. Use that deeper understanding to add more meaning when you thank your coworker, Simon-Thomas says.
“We’ve kind of gotten used to those words–thank you–we say them when we don’t mean them, we say them in an obligatory kind of politeness way. But when you really back it up with the narrative, with the details of what happened, how that other person is instrumental to what happened, and how it has really improved upon your life in that moment, you reawaken it. You bring something new to the equation for yourself and the other person, and yeah, it’s that much more powerful,” Simon-Thomas says.
Assign a gratitude time. Dortch counsels her clients to try to think about gratitude at the same time every day. It might be when you first wake up or before you go to bed. Think of it like working out, she says. When you do it at the same time every day, it’s going to become part of your routine.
Each of the experts recommended keeping a gratitude journal. By writing down the things for which you’re grateful on a regular basis, you begin to focus more on them. Thank-you notes are also a good opportunity to express your gratitude and give you a forum to detail some of those deeper gratitude insights you’ve learned to uncover.
We have more control over our mind-set than many of us believe, Olivo says. Even when times are difficult, we can practice being more positive and grateful by actively seeking out and focusing on things for which we can be grateful.
“I think that people need to understand that we have a choice over what mind-set we’re in. A lot of times people just think that the way I feel, it just happens to me, but it isn’t. It actually is something that we can choose,” Olivo says.
While gratitude can be a powerful force in our lives, Simon-Thomas also says it’s important to not think of it as a cure-all or an excuse for denial. It’s not helpful to be grateful for an abusive spouse because he or she is nice sometimes, or to be grateful for harmful circumstances. However, there is increasing research about the relationship between gratitude and resilience in traumatic stress situations, she says.
“We all experience difficult times in life, we fail in ways that we hoped we would succeed, people who are close to us get hurt or die, you know, we lose things that produce incredible sadness, and in those moments, those sort of natural, healthy moments of challenge, either whether it be a disease that we’re faced with or again death in the family, there is incredible benefit to adopting a practice of gratitude,” Simon-Thomas says.