The Secret of Gratitude

Research shows that those having gratitude can lead to happiness.

Posted Nov 20, 2018

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

Thanksgiving week is the perfect time of year to feel and express gratitude. While things might not be going so well in your life right now, there’s always something to be thankful for. Sometimes being mindful and stopping to count our blessings can be heartwarming.

Gratitude is about feeling love and appreciation for oneself and others. As poet Pablo Neruda said, “You can pick all the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.” Many people take their lives for granted and don’t express gratitude often enough. It’s important to permeate each day with gratitude and marvel at the life we’re living. This is one of the many reasons why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. More often than not, I think gratitude should be a built-in part of our everyday lives. Expressing it is like keeping a tuning fork alive and vibrating the joy throughout the universe.

In her book The Gratitude Diaries (2015), Janice Kaplan said that, in addition to the feeling of gratitude being fun, looking for the positive in lived experiences can change your attitude for the better. In her own life, she realized it has not been so much that her experiences have affected her happiness as how she chose to frame them, and thus how they affected her. She said, “I could decide to feel annoyance and torment—or I could decide to feel joy. It still required some conscious effort, but gratitude was helping me to feel the joy” (p. 90).

A gratitude journal is a great way to remind yourself of what you’re thankful for. Sometimes during challenging times, it’s helpful to look back on what you wrote to give you an added positive perspective. Studies have shown that those who are more grateful and express it more readily are more likely to be happy.

Writer Oliver Sacks, who suffered from pancreatic cancer said, said that having gratitude was responsible for keeping him alive. Even though he knew his life was coming to an end (he passed away in 2015), he was grateful for the opportunity to look back and see his last days in the context of his entire life with a deep sense of connection. He confessed that, while he was afraid of dying, his predominant emotion at the end of his life was gratitude. Knowing that he was dying made him feel even more alive. He was able to do all the things he wanted to do before his transition—such as deepen his friendships, say goodbye to loved ones, travel, achieve new levels of insight, and write. For those at the end of life, writing can be very cathartic and healing. In addition, it is a memorable gift to leave behind for loved ones.

One study done by The Greater Good found that writing gratitude letters is beneficial for both healthy individuals and also those who have mental-health challenges. In fact, the study concluded that practicing gratitude in addition to receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than when counseling is offered alone. The studied also illuminated four insights with respect to gratitude:

  1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions.
  2. Having gratitude helps even if not shared.
  3. The benefits of gratitude take time.
  4. Gratitude has long-lasting effects on the brain.

This Thanksgiving, perhaps you’ve decided to document your feelings of gratitude. If so, here are some writing prompts to help you get started:

  1. Write down the names of individuals you feel gratitude toward, and state why.
  2. Write about a gift you received that you truly appreciate.
  3. Write about five events or experiences you’re thankful for.
  4. Write a blessing letter to someone who has changed your life.

References

Kaplan, J. (2015). The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. New York, NY: Dutton.

Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.

Sacks, O. (2015). Gratitude. New York, NY: Borzoi Books, Knopf.

Wong, J., and J. Brown (2017). “How Gratitude Changes Your Brain.”