At Sentier Psychotherapy, we do our best to integrate gratitude as part of our personal and work culture. This time of year involves more messages in the media about gratitude, which means we are all seeing and hearing more about how we need to practice gratitude. But why? We decided to reflect on what gratitude is, how it can help us, and how to make it a practice.
Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California – Davis and leading expert in the study gratitude, defines gratitude as having two parts:
- Affirmation of goodness: Seeing and appreciating the good things around us.
- Recognizing the source: Understanding that goodness lies outside of ourselves and comes from other people, the natural word, and/or higher powers if you have a spiritual mindset. Put simply, “gratitude helps people realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.”
Affirming the good
Gratitude can be fleeting, such as a deep momentary appreciation for someone or something, and it can also look like a more intentional practice over time.
One way to practice affirming the good is by intentionally savoring moments. This can look like:
- Sharing out loud when you are feeling particularly appreciative of something or something
- Pausing for a moment to take a “mental picture” of something good as it happens to try and capture details so that you can recall and appreciate them later
- Focusing on your senses in the moment and pausing to appreciate the sights, smells, sounds, taste, and feeling of something you are grateful for
While it may feel intuitive to think of gratitude as only a focus on the good, part of affirming the good is acknowledging the bad. As we all know, things can’t always be rosy! Remembering difficult things can set the stage for appreciating current positives, and one way to be grateful is to reflect on hard times to see how much things have changed.
Recognizing the source
Social connection is a crucial component of well-being, and practicing gratitude can increase feelings of social connectedness. The enjoyment of social interactions register in a similar way as physical pleasure to the human brain, and our brain’s joy from social connections can be reflected in some of the most basic ways that we communicate:
- Sense of touch, even if touch is fleeting and minimal
- Nonverbal expressions/how we look at one another
- Usage of voice when in connection with others; is often subtle, but communicates love
Increasing practices of showing gratitude can have positive impacts on relationships. Expressing gratitude to a friend, family member, partner, or community member can help us feel more connected and in tune with our world and when you say “thank you” to someone, “your brain registers that something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a meaningful social community” (Greater Good).
In terms of romantic partnerships, sharing gratitude can prompt cycles of generosity where “one partner’s gratitude inspires the other to act in a way that reaffirms their commitment” (Mindful).
How can I practice being grateful?
So, how can we intentionally practice being grateful year round, rather than just when it is a seasonally relevant buzzword?
Keep a gratitude journal (we know, we know. Just read on…)
The research on gratitude journaling is quite telling. In one study, a sample of college students who wrote about things they were grateful for once a week for ten weeks reported fewer physical symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and nausea, compared to control groups.
In another study, heart-failure patients who were assigned to either a gratitude-journaling group or a treatment-as-usual group found that patients in the first group had more parasympathetic heart-rate variability, which is a sign of better heart health.
Clearly, noticing and taking note of things we are grateful for is a benefit to our health!
Here are some tips for gratitude journaling:
- Gratitude journaling is most effective when it is done less frequently than every day. Try starting out by making a list of things you are grateful for once a week.
- Be detailed and focus on who you are grateful for in addition to what.
- Keep track of surprises, as surprising positive things tend to produce stronger levels of gratitude.
- Try not to hurry your journaling, as “gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life,” says Emmons.
Write gratitude letters
Writing to someone that you have never formally thanked to let them know what they mean to you has been shown to provide a happiness boost to the sender and the receiver. See this this guide for more ideas on how to write gratitude letters.
The reasons to focus on being grateful go on and on. From boosting mood to improving physical well-being and strengthening interpersonal relationships, making gratitude a regular part of our lives can broaden our minds and bring us closer to one another. There is so much to be grateful for!
Blog written by Sentier Client Care Coordinator, Ellie Struewing, BA and Sentier therapist and clinic owner, Megan Sigmon-Olsen, MSW, LICSW.