Can being thankful really make you happier?
Recently, I began a daily gratitude practice. Every morning when I shower, I list ten things I’m thankful for. On a good day, it might be my relationships, the glorious weather and a recent, delicious yoga practice. On a bad day, it may simply be the roof over my head and food in my belly. It doesn’t always come easy – but it does somehow allow me to see my life through a slightly different, more expansive lens (you know, one where I realise for a moment that I’m not actually the centre of the universe).
On the surface, having a ‘gratitude practice’ sounds a bit irksome – like the kind of thing your mum would have insisted upon when you were a kid complaining about eating your broccoli (‘don’t you know how lucky you are? There are kids starving out there!’). But, there’s no denying that gratitude can contribute to your happiness. In 2011, researchers found that grateful contemplation resulted in a physiological response. It activated the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and decreased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), indicating that gratitude can increase wellbeing and reduces stress.
It’s not always easy to muster up a sense of thankfulness though, and at times it may actually be counter-productive, bringing up conflicting emotions and making you feel worse (‘I’m a terrible person for not being grateful’). Recent research, which analysed 27 different studies, showed that gratitude interventions had limited benefits for depression and anxiety. This doesn’t mean that gratitude can’t be beneficial, just that it’s not a cure-all, especially when it comes to some mental health challenges.
However, gratitude can create a shift in perspective. Dr Lauren Tober, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, has experienced this shift firsthand through her photographic project, Capturing Gratitude. In 2012, after having read the positive research on gratitude, she began taking a photo every day of something she felt grateful for. She was surprised by how instant and profound the effects were. She says, “Almost immediately I was tuned into all that was wonderful in my life, and I found a deep sense of joy and contentment…In this personal longitudinal study, what has been most profound is that not only have I felt happier and more connected to myself and others, but that I am able to ride the waves of the ups and downs of life with more grace and ease.”
When reflecting on my own gratitude practice I have undoubtedly experienced shifts in the way that I view my life and, in turn, make better decisions for myself. For example, when I began to see glimpses of comparison showing up in my gratitude practice (‘that person on instagram has a better house/body/yoga pose than I do’) I decided to spend less time on social media and replace it with the things that I feel fortunate for – like sitting with my chickens while drinking my morning cup of tea. When I’m aware of the things that feel good in my life, I’m more likely to dedicate energy to them. During times of turmoil and overwhelm, my gratitude practice hasn’t necessarily eased my anxiety, but it has provided an opportunity to press pause for a brief moment and come back to what truly matters. And for that, I am sincerely grateful.
5 ways to integrate a gratitude practice
- Habit stack – contemplate things that you’re grateful for while showering, brushing your teeth or doing another daily task
- Journal – write a list of things you are grateful for daily
- At the beginning/end of a yoga/exercise practice
- Bed-time reflection – before you drift off to sleep, ask yourself, ‘what went well today’?
- Take a picture as a keepsake
Benefits of gratitude
A 2003 study on gratitude discovered that those who practised gratitude:
- Reported more happiness and joy
- Experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness
- Spent more time exercising
- Were more optimistic and satisfied with their lives
- Reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect
- Were more likely to offer emotional support to others
- Felt an increased sense of connection with others
- Slept more hours with a better quality of sleep
Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine