Here’s a fact for which to be grateful: by most objective measures, the world is getting better. Though the majority of people don’t realize it (even the really educated ones), we’re more healthy, more safe, and less poor than at any other point in history. So says Swedish statistician, Ola Rosling, in his groundbreaking book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.
And yet, even before COVID-19, global rates of anxiety and depression have been increasing year over year. Why is that?
Here’s one thought: after more than a century of pursuing chronic consumption as a means to happiness, and outside definitions of achievement as markers for success, lots of people are feeling empty. And lost.
Among them, there’s a critical mass who no longer buy the ‘be more/do more/have more’ dream and have adopted a simpler outlook instead. It’s as if a bunch of people are collectively saying : enough really is enough, we just want to appreciate the goodness we already have in our lives. Or, at least, to have a grateful mindset as a base from which to venture forth for more.
This may help to explain why the practice of gratitude is enjoying a cultural renaissance. Here’s a closer look at what is, arguably, one of the most beneficial trends of the 21st century.
Defining gratitude in cultural context
In certain Eastern cultures, gratitude is a dominant way of life, where individuals view themselves as the recipients of endless blessings bestowed by their ancestors. In the West, however, we’re still waking up to the realization that gratitude is a choice that must actively be trained.
To that end, the Western definition of gratitude has evolved from a sense or obligation of returning a favor, to the more modern understanding which also includes reflecting on what one has to be grateful for and its correlation to wellbeing. Gratitude has been called a feeling, a personality trait, a virtue, a state of being, and even a lifestyle.
Among the most notable contributors to the scientific research on gratitude is Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Emmons’ definition of gratitude consists of two components: acknowledgement and recognition.
In his book, THANKS! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, he defines these components as follows:
“First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves.”
Importantly, Emmons emphasizes that: “Recognition is the quality that allows gratitude to be transformational. To recognize is to cognize or think differently about something from the way we have thought about it before”. As we hone our ability to recognize and acknowledge the giftedness of life, our internal reactions are no longer determined by external events.
The benefits of gratitude – past, present and future
Everybody wants to be happy. But because our brains are wired to constantly look for the next ‘shiny new thing’, our experience of positive emotions tends to fade quickly. Gratitude helps you value what you have in higher regard, allowing you to experience the associated positive feelings for longer periods of time. Not just as a consumer or spectator, but as an active participant in the appreciation of your life. In fact, being grateful for what you already have is one of the most accessible ways to initiate and extend feelings of wellbeing in the present moment.
Gratitude is also the gateway through which you create more of what you want in the future, for your own benefit and that of others. Research shows that actively practicing gratitude builds resilience in the face of stress and adverse life circumstances. In turn, this boosts feelings of confidence and strengthens our sense of personal value and worthiness so that we can set out to accomplish what we wish to achieve.
Perhaps less obvious is that gratitude can also help you reframe past circumstances, which we often mistakenly conceive of as being fixed. By reframing challenges from the past as beneficial to your growth, and gratefully acknowledging that growth, you can move past residual issues more easily.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Albert Schweitzer called gratitude “the secret to life”, and stated that ‘the greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.”
3 powerful methods for practicing gratitude daily
Gratitude Journal: This practice is also among the most popular, and for good reason. Writing down what you’re grateful for helps those positive feelings resonate and lets you experience them more powerfully. It’s a lot harder to just ‘go through the motions’ and remain detached from your gratitude practice when you commit it to paper.
This can be as simple as writing down a single statement, based on different prompts such as:
I am grateful for (person) because…
One good thing that happened today…
The thing I appreciate most about myself is…
Note: To get the most out of this exercise, be sure to include why you’re grateful.
Gratitude Reflection: Whether first thing in the morning as you wake up, or right before falling asleep, make a mental list of all things for which you’re grateful in life. This can be people you love and those who have helped you now or in the past. Circumstances that have propelled you forward (even the difficult ones). Your health. An important insight that transformed your life. A cherished pet who’s always happy to see you. The abundant beauty of nature. Whatever tugs at your heart. The more you start purposefully appreciating the good in your life, the more it expands.
Gratitude Expression: Make a point of thanking or showing appreciation to at least one person every day. Send them a text message. Call them. Knock on their door. You can even just telepathically send them a hat tip. The point is to acknowledge that someone else has enriched your life a little or a lot and made it better in some way. This is not about flattery or trying to get in someone’s good graces. Rather, it’s about expanding your awareness of how good it feels to be connected to something larger than yourself.
What does science tell us about gratitude?
Gratitude is a relatively young field of research, spanning just a few decades, but within it, primary areas of interest have already emerged. These include the correlation between gratitude and other personality traits, gratitude and social relationships, gratitude and wellbeing, and the effects of gratitude on physical health.
Several scales have been developed to measure baseline levels of gratitude, the most popular of which are the GRAT and the GQ-6. The GRAT, or Gratitude, Resentment and Appreciation Test, measures three factors: sense of abundance, simple appreciation, and appreciation of others. The GQ-6 is a self-assessment that measures gratitude as an emotion according to intensity, frequency, span, and density.
Since gratitude is considered a trait that we can develop, gauging your baseline level can be helpful as you take up or continue a consistent gratitude practice.
Below is a list of the most notable findings from the research on practicing gratitude:
Preventing negative emotions: Gratitude is incompatible with, and mutually exclusive to, a host of negative feelings, including resentment, envy, and regret. So a positive consequence of letting in more gratitude, is that it prevents us from experiencing emotions that cause pain and negativity.
Supporting mental health: Being thankful is correlated with a significantly lower risk of developing a mental health disorder. It’s also correlated with as improved management of existing mental and behavior health disorders and conditions, including: PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Improving sleep: A number of studies on gratitude and sleep conclude that gratitude is positively associated with falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, and having better sleep quality. The primary mechanism by which this works is reducing the likelihood of distressing thoughts before sleep.
Strengthening romantic relationships: One of the most toxic patterns in romantic relationships is the presence of chronic, low-grade resentment. We already know (as stated above) that gratitude deflects resentment. But on the flipside, a lack of gratitude is also likely to encourage resentment. Regularly showing appreciation for your partner is a simple and effective way to improve the quality of your relationship and has also been found to motivate a partner’s future loving behavior. (Nicholson, 2011).
Maintaining workplace relationships: Job satisfaction has been significantly correlated with different forms of gratitude, including:
Dispositional gratitude – the kind that reflects our innate tendencies.
State gratitude – the kind that occurs in response to valuable aid that is intended altruistically.
And institutional gratitude – the kind that is “culturally embedded within the organization, through its people, policies, and practices, such that thankfulness and appreciation are customary features of daily work life.” (Waters, 2012)
FAQs about gratitude
Is gratitude something you’re born with? Can I improve my ability to be grateful?
Certain aspects of gratitude are related to the big 5 personality traits, which are to some degree genetic. But gratitude is a mental muscle that you can train and improve with consistent practice.
Psychologist and researched Robert Emmons says: “The evidence on gratitude contradicts the widely held view that all people have a “set-point” of happiness that cannot be reset by any known means. In some cases, people have reported that gratitude led to transformative life changes. And, even more important, the family, friends, partners, and others that surround them consistently report that people who practice gratitude seem measurably happier and are most pleasant to be around.”
Aren’t grateful people too content with the status quo?
Gratitude isn’t the same thing as complacency. It’s active. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, you can be grateful for what you have and use that to guide you in searching for more through personal growth, which is never ending.
What are some of the challenging or negative aspects of gratitude?
Gratitude is a great tool for relieving many of the mental, emotional, and even physical ailments that we may experience. But it requires continued and conscious effort. Lapsing into a negative mindset always remains challenging, even for experienced practitioners of gratitude.
In addition, many people have been culturally indoctrinated in the belief that you make your own destiny, and therefore what you get is rightfully yours. Though well-intentioned, this viewpoint often degenerates into narrow-minded nd self-entitled thinking. It doesn’t leave enough room for appreciating gifts in all forms which are bestowed upon us by other people. Or by fortunate life circumstances over which we had no control.
How you can use Kai to turn gratitude into a powerful daily habit
Kai sends you inspiring gratitude prompts as part of a morning flow routine. In order to train in developing your ability to experience gratitude, Kai includes a diverse range of prompts that help you feel uplifted. Regardless of circumstance or situation. Using Kai’s journal you can also monitor your gratitude entries and reflect on them regularly.
Here are some examples of the gratitude prompts you’ll get:
What’s a relationship in your life that makes you feel confident and why?
What are you grateful for about your current life stage and why?
What’s one thing you experienced recently that made you feel a sense of wonder or awe?
Final thoughts on gratitude
To summarize, practicing gratitude on a daily basis is one of the simplest and most accessible ways to feel good about yourself and create more of what you want in life. Consistent practice is key to enjoying the many benefits that gratitude confers. This requires that we constantly seek and actively acknowledge everything for which to be grateful in our lives.
- PositivePsychology.com: Research on gratitude and positivity
- PositivePsychology.com: Measurement scales for gratitude
- Center for Greater Good, UC Berkeley: Understanding the benefits of gratitude
- Journal of Happiness Studies: A meta-analytic review of gratitude and PTSD
- Journal of Self and Identify: The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety
- Counselling Psychology Review: Gratitude as a psychological intervention
- Robert Emmons: THANKS! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier
- Robert Emmons: The Psychology of Gratitude
- Emotion: Gratitude and romantic love
- Journal of Applied Psychology: Gratitude in the workplace