By Felicia Levy, LCSW
Heading into the holidays with Thanksgiving quickly approaching, many people think about what they are grateful for. Personally, gratitude is one of my favorite tools to use when I’m feeling in a funk. As a therapist, I receive regular feedback from clients who say that finding a daily gratitude practice really makes a positive difference in their overall mood. It’s not that gratitude makes the problems go away. What gratitude can do is get your mind off of your problems and worries and change your focus. It can help give perspective to all the good things in life which sometimes get forgotten.
According to Robert Emmons, a scientific expert on gratitude and psychologist at University of California, Davis, and the author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, gratitude is defined as having two main aspects. The first part of his definition of gratitude explains that there needs to be an affirmation of goodness. This essentially means identifying something, anything that is positive- a basic belief that there are good things in the world. The next part of his definition explains that those good things we are acknowledging are outside of ourselves. In its most basic form, gratitude as defined by Oxford, is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Why so much fuss about gratitude? There are many, many benefits of incorporating gratitude into our lives. Many studies show that the positive effects related to gratitude include a stronger immune system, improved sleep, increased well-being and life satisfaction, improved self-esteem, stronger resiliency, decreased depression, anxiety, blood pressure, and pain. Who wouldn’t like some of those things??
Research on neuroscience has shown that even pondering the idea of gratitude, simply looking for something to be grateful for, gives us a small increase in dopamine- the neurotransmitter in our brain’s reward and pleasure center. Neuroplasticity shows that when we repeat the activation of these neurons, new pathways are formed, essentially changing our brain chemistry. Simply put, the more we look for and practice gratitude, the more we can influence our happiness.
Take your first step- decide what might work for you. There is no right or wrong way to practice gratitude. It is suggested that you keep track of it somehow vs. just letting it float around in your mind. Some people like to keep a journal; some like to keep track of it online; some prefer using an app. Do whatever works best for you. The trick is to commit to doing something gratitude based each and every day.
Here are a few ideas to help get you started thinking in terms of gratitude:
ABC Gratitude: Every day for 26 days, think of something that you’re grateful for going in alphabetical order. Alphabet gratitude is also great for insomnia. Instead of tossing and turning, change your thoughts from worries to A through Z gratitude to help you fall asleep.
Gratitude jar (Annual, Or 365 Days): Each time something good happens, write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. At the end of a year, empty out the jar and remind yourself of all the good things that have happened.
Acknowledge one friend per day: Once per day for an entire month, publically acknowledge a friend on social media. Write a post about why you are so thankful to have this friend in your life.
Thank a stranger: Pay attention to the people who cross your path. Thank the stranger who held the door open for you. Acknowledge the woman who takes care of your dry cleaning and always does a good job. Thank the cashier at your grocery store for being kind. You get the idea.
Send a letter: Once a week send a letter to someone who has made an impact on your life. It can be a handwritten letter or an email. It can be to someone you know or someone you don’t. Send a letter to a mentor, an actor, a politician, a musician, a store you really like. Again, there are no rules. Try to keep it up for as long as you can.
Walking gratitude: Each time you are walking outside, look around. Pay attention to what you notice and are grateful for. Maybe you like big clouds in the sky; perhaps you are happy about the sunny day; maybe you notice the smell of a fireplace; or are excited for the first snowfall. Opening your eyes to the world around you can help improve your mood.
Three good things: Every day for one month, write down three things that you are grateful for. They don’t have to be big. It could be as simple as you had a good cup of coffee in the morning, wore your favorite pair of socks, and caught the train on time. Three per day for one month.
Lastly, there is no right or wrong way to do gratitude. You may start out strong and lose momentum. It’s ok to fall off. This happens. Plan in advance for obstacles and what you will do to get back on track with your gratitude habit! For example, if you know that you usually have busy weekends and might be too tired to write down a daily gratitude, commit to each and every Monday, no matter what, you do something for your gratitude plan.