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Why gratitude equals happiness
Fact. People who regularly practice being grateful are happier. According to studies into positive psychology at the Harvard Medical School, gratitude and increased happiness go hand in hand.
Why? There are plenty of theories, but mainly it’s because grateful people are more resilient, even in the most difficult situations. Being grateful also helps us to rise above cynicism, entitlement and anger, to relish positive experiences, and to build strong relationships.
When life throws hard knocks – losing a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, divorce or being unemployed – it can bring us down. But if the knocks keep coming, it can be hard to pick ourselves up again. In these moments, finding something to be grateful for seems ridiculous, if not impossible – so why bother?
Psychologists have shown that gratitude helps us to cope better with life’s downs by rewiring our brain to increase our willpower, promote feelings of calm and increase our vibration to attract more positivity into our lives.
And now there’s medical evidence to back this up. At the University of Indiana, researchers recruited 43 people who were undergoing counselling for anxiety or depression. 22 of the group were then assigned a gratitude task, and for the first three sessions of their weekly counselling, they spent 20 minutes writing a letter in which they expressed their gratitude.
The other participants acted as a control group, and attended their usual counseling sessions. At the end of the study, those who had completed the gratitude task not only reported continued feelings of gratefulness, brain scans showed more gratitude-related activity up to a month later.
It turns out that there’s truth behind the saying ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’ Although we often associate wealth with happiness, according to new studies, being grateful for what we’ve got makes us happy, not money. In fact, being wealthy can make people feel more isolated. Of course, there’s a fine line between having enough to be comfortable, and having so much that it starts to have a negative effect on mental health.
The economist, Professor Rik Pieters from Tilburg University, Holland, has identified that in general, happy people socialise and get pleasure from the simple things, while unhappy people spend money to counteract their loneliness and as a substitute for personal relationships. It’s a truth that we’re all familiar with. Who hasn’t used retail therapy after a break-up or bereavement to try to ‘fill the gap’ only to find that those new shoes, that handbag or pile of ‘stuff’ we’ve bought only gives us a short-term high?
Gratitude makes us happy
More and more people are waking up to the idea that living gratefully is the only route to happiness. Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast, co-founder of Gratefulness focuses his spiritual teaching and practice on the benefits of gratitude. In this Ted Talk, he explains the link between happiness and gratitude.
‘What is the connection between happiness and gratefulness? Many people would say, well, that’s very easy. When you are happy, you are grateful. But think again. Is it really the happy people who are grateful? We all know quite a number of people who have everything that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy, because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have, and they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. You are surprised. Why? Because they are grateful. So it is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.’
Keeping a Gratitude Journal
The older I get, the more I realise that life never really gets sorted. It’s a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. So what are the options? You can slide down and sink into depression. Or you can look for methods and tools to help you become more resilient and positive.
One thing that has helped me to cope with the ‘downs’ is to be grateful. And the simplest and most effective way to express my gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. When you write things down, your brain reacts to the written words as if it was a real experience. Emotions, thoughts, and ideas then become planted. The good news the more it becomes a habit, the easier it gets.
The Law of Attraction teaches us that the more attention we give to positive experiences, the more we will experience. I like to write in my gratitude journal twice a day – first thing in the morning before I even get out of bed when my brain is still fresh and not yet bogged down by the day’s events – and the last thing at night. I find that it helps reduce anxiety, and puts me in a good mood before I fall asleep. On days when I can’t find anything to write, I look back on previous entries which always cheers me up no end!
Six simple steps to starting a gratitude journal
- Treat yourself to a beautiful notebook – one that makes your heart sing! Or if you prefer, you can find some beautiful gratitude journal templates and gratitude journal apps online here.
- Write in your gratitude journal first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
- Start small. Think of 3 things (if you can think of more – great!) to be grateful for and write them down. Some ideas for your gratitude journal; being grateful that you have a comfy bed to sleep in; having gratitude for being alive; being thankful that you can see, hear, walk – all the things we often take for granted but if they were suddenly taken away, would leave us feeling lost.
- After writing in your gratitude journal, spend at least 1 minute in silent meditation, thinking about the things you are grateful for. Struggling to meditate? Here are some Tips on Meditation.
- By starting the day with gratitude, you are setting the tone for your day, increasing your vibration. Normally, I feel happier, more productive and less stressed.
- By ending the day with gratitude, it is easier to drift off to sleep calmer, happier, less anxious and more at peace with the world. This tends to promote a better night’s sleep.
The benefits of a gratitude journal
Since beginning my gratitude journal, I have noticed that when I start my day well, it tends to end well. I put this down to the fact that my gratitude journal has helped me to stop complaining about ‘the small stuff’, puts me in a positive mood, and weirdly, brings more positive experiences into my life.
Although most people have more positive than negative experiences, we are hard-wired to focus on the bad stuff. An example of this is that we hardly notice when we are complimented for how we look, yet when we are told we look tired, this is what we focus on and remember!
The good news is that being grateful does become easier. It just needs practice! Sometimes, we have to celebrate the small wins in order for them to become bigger. Gratitude creates abundance while complaining brings poverty and a lack of abundance.
As the ‘Law of Attraction’ co-author and inspirational speaker, Esther Hicks, says: ‘If you want it and expect it, it will be yours very soon.’ The Law of Attraction states: ‘If you focus on what you don’t have, you will attract even less. Try focusing on what you do have, then you will attract even more.’ In other words, when you show gratitude for what you have, even if it’s not enough, you’ll attract more of the good things into your life.
Other ways to remind ourselves to be grateful
Affirmation and gratitude stickers;
Happiness expert and author of the “The Happiness Project” Gretchen Rubin finds it helpful to use visual prompts to remind us to practice gratitude. I put gratitude and affirmation stickers on my fridge, in my car on my bathroom mirror, and the screensaver on my phone is a beautiful image of an angel. All these give me gentle ‘nudges’ throughout the day to remain grateful.
Focus externally to practice gratitude;
When we are depressed, we can become trapped in our own thoughts. A temporary but useful relief is to focus externally. Examples could be ‘I am grateful for the beautiful view outside my window’; ‘I am grateful it’s sunny today’; ‘I am grateful for the jumper I am wearing – it’s so warm and comfortable.’
Give back and be grateful;
When we are down, it’s difficult to think about anything else. Studies have found that by helping others and shifting the attention from ourselves is a real mood booster. It could be something as simple as taking a busy friend’s child or dog to the park – both children and pets can lift our mood. Or take an elderly relative to the shops or for a coffee. They’ll love the company and attention, and in return, we get a buzz from their happiness. One of my favourite things to do when I’m experiencing a low mood is to volunteer at my local animal sanctuary. So many animals have had such a tough life, but they are always so grateful and happy to see us. We can learn a lot from our animal friends!
Get active or get crafty;
Taking up a sport or a craft such as knitting, sewing, model-making or any creative activity demands concentration. This takes us out of our heads for a moment, helping us feel calmer, more focused and more relaxed.
The Link Between the Brain and Emotions
Cognitive Neurosciencist, Mervyn Etienne MSC explains the science behind gratitude and increased wellbeing. “Gratitude is important for our personal sense of value, and as a shared attitude that builds community. Considered to be an important emotional behaviour as far back as Roman times, both the statesman Cicero, and Stoic philosopher Seneca, considered it “the mother of all virtues”. Contemporary science has shown that gratitude improves resilience, psychological wellbeing and social relationships. And people who are more grateful have even greater wellbeing. Recent research in the area of affective neuroscience showed that when participants in a study were asked to rate the support and helping behaviour of individuals to people under threat, the areas of the brain associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind, all lit up. In short, feelings of gratitude activate brain regions associated with positive emotional states and moral values. If we appreciate the help that others give us, we help ourselves as well as them. Learning to call to mind things and people you show gratitude to can improve your mental health and wellbeing and those to whom you are grateful.”
Make way for change!
Change is never easy, but you can do it! Fitting a Gratitude Journal into your routine in the morning isn’t always easy, but it only takes 10 minutes or less, so try to make the change.
It’s easier to mindlessly scroll through social media before you turn in for the night than to take the time to relax, unwind and get ready for bed. But with so many of us having sleep issues, we need to ask why? Most of us had strict bedtime routines as children and there were good reasons behind it. A warm bath, a bedtime story, dim lights…
It’s these physical things that send signals to the brain to start slowing down, helping us to sleep deeper and longer. If I look at my emails before bed, I immediately start analysing stuff and getting over-stimulated – and then I can’t sleep. I wonder how many other people do the same!
Take the time now to comment, and let me know what you are grateful for today!
If you enjoyed this post you may also like this one on Mindfulness.