Cultivating Happiness - Gratitude

photo credit: Louis Vaughan

photo credit: Louis Vaughan


"I don't have to chase extraordinary  moments to find happiness - it's right in front of me if I'm paying attention and practicing gratitude." ~Brené Brown

One thing I frequently ask my clients to do is to keep a happiness, or gratitude journal.  Gratitude is an appreciative state of mind that works in much the same way as mantras, and EMDR.  Through neuroplasticity, our brains evolve to meet our usage needs.  Our focus directs what we see, and our experience; if we focus on the negative we begin to see more of it, and the same can be said if we focus on the positive.  Increased levels of gratitude are strongly correlated with greater happiness.  In essence, when deliberately eliciting gratitude, you are practicing feeling positive emotions, you are building neural networks associated with those emotions, with that comes greater health, better resilience in the face of adversity, and stronger connections to others.

U.C. Davis and the University of Miami conducted a study where one group spent 10 weeks writing daily about things they were grateful for, another spent that time writing about irritations, and a third spent that time writing about anything that affected them, no importance was placed on whether it was positive or negative.  The group who wrote about gratitude were significantly more optimistic about their lives; they also exercised more and experienced better health. ~ paraphrased from Harvard Health Publications

The Gottman Institute has extensively studied couples and found that the regular expression of gratitude builds a reserve of good feeling; one that increases positive feelings, and comfort in the relationship, one that will mediate times of strife.

Exercises in gratitude to try:

  • Writing a heartfelt letter of gratitude to someone who's done something meaningful for you, and whom you haven't yet thanked.
  • Beginning a gratitude / happiness journal.  Buy or create a beautiful journal in which you put positive and life-affirming thoughts and anecdotes.  This can become a book that you can open to any page, and it will brighten your day.
  • Prayer: I'm not any kind of an expert on religion, but it seems to me that prayer in all religions focuses on gratitude.  
  • Making the effort to thank people whenever they do something kind for you.  A smile or a nod is often enough for people to feel appreciated for small things, but try saying it out loud.  In theory, saying it out loud will will reinforce that experience of gratitude in your own mind, and make it easier to access the feeling state later.  (See the blog post on mantras if you want a deeper explanation).
  • Setting aside a regular time to create a comprehensive list of your blessings.
  • Check out:

A few videos I find inspiring:

An interesting aside:

"There are some notable exceptions to the generally positive results in research on gratitude.  [A] study found that children and adolescents who wrote and delivered a thank-you letter to someone who made a difference in their lives may have made the other person happier — but did not improve their own well-being. This finding suggests that gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity." ~  Harvard Mental Health Letter

Even with this being true, I would argue that children, and adolescents should still be encouraged to develop the capacity for gratitude.  Circumstances change, children grow up, and a habit of focusing on gratitude, would be a good one to have in place when they do.