“Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings ~
How do you feel about your past? Your past consists of memories. To focus on all the negative things of the past, strengthen your current feelings of unhappiness. To focus on gratitude in the past, strengthen your current feelings of positivity.
1. The word gratitude
Gratitude can be understood as a sense of appreciation which gives satisfaction.
2. Social science
According to leading American psychologists, there is a close relationship between gratitude and forgiveness. There is also a close agreement or connection between gratitude on the one hand and human happiness in general. A happy person is a grateful person and a grateful person is a happy person. Gratitude is, in their view, so defined that you are aware of good things that happen to you and never accept it for granted. Your friends and family know you are a grateful person, because you always make a point of showing your gratitude and expressing it.
3. How can we know how grateful we are?
We start with the best documented gratitude test, developed by Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, who are also the leading American investigators of both gratitude and forgiveness. Keep your score handy.
Use the scale below as a guide and write a number next to each statement to indicate how much you agree with it.
- I have so much to be thankful for.
- If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.
- When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.
- I am grateful to a wide variety of people.
- As I get older, I find myself more able to appreciate people, events and situations that have been part of my life history.
Long amounts of time can go before I feel grateful to something or someone
Based on a sample of 1,224 adults who recently took this survey as part of a feature on the Spirituality and Health website, here are some benchmarks for making sense of your score.
If you scored 35 or below, then you are in the bottom fourth (between 0 to 25%) of the sample in terms of gratitude – Very low gratitude.
If you scored between 36 and 38, you are in the bottom half (or between 25 to 50%) of people who took the survey – Low gratitude.
If you scored between 39 and 41, you are in the top quarter (thus 75%) – High gratitude.
If you scored 42, you are in the top one-eighth – Very high gratitude.
Women score slightly higher than men and older people score higher than younger people do.
If you scored 35 or below, then you are in the bottom fourth (between 0 to 25%) of the sample in terms of gratitude. If you scored between 36 and 38, you are in the bottom half (or between 25 to 50%) of people who took the survey. If you scored between 39 and 41, you are in the top quarter (thus 75%) and if you scored 42, you are in the top one-eighth. Women score slightly higher than men and older people score higher than younger people.
Let’s talk about everything we are grateful for in life. Think about the last 24 hours and mention at least 3 things for which you are grateful. It is also a good idea to do this regularly in your work, marriage and family life. The purpose of this is: exercise your gratitude. Make it a habit.
• I have a house.
• I can pay off my mortgage.
• I have a car.
• I am healthy.
• I have food to eat.
• I have friends and family who love me.
• I have running hot and cold water.
• I have clean and tidy clothes.
• I can easily move (walk) on my own.
• I do not have pain now.
4. Gratefulness in graphics
5. A Hypnotherapeutic perspective
Dr. Michael Yapko (Clinical Psychologist) and worldwide famous for using hypnosis in treating depression, wrote: …when one focuses on something, one amplifies it in one’s awareness, in effect associating oneself to it.
When we draw people’s attention to – or divert it away from – can have profound consequences for the quality of their subjective experience. Focusing people on what is wrong with them – or what is right about them – generates quite different feelings in someone.
(M. Yapko: Treating Depression with hypnosis (p. 5)
There are 12 black dots in this image.
Your brain won’t let you see them all at once.
Only when you start focusing will you be able to see them.
A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region in Africa to study the prospects for expanding business.
One sends back a message saying: situation hopeless. No one wears shoes.
The other sends one back triumphantly: Glorious business opportunity. They have no shoes.
There is another wonderful native American story about the chief who is talking to his tribe about two dogs inside his mind: one a white dog that is good and courageous, the other a black dog that is vengeful and angry. Both dogs are fighting to the death. A Young brave, unable to wait for the end of the story, asks, “Which one will win?” The chief responds: “The one I feed.”
The following story illustrates how two people may look at the same situation from two different frameworks:
One day, the father of a very wealthy family took his son on a trip to the country with the express purpose of showing him how poor people live. They spent a couple of days and nights on the farm of what would be considered a very poor family. On their return from their trip, the father asked his son: “How was the trip?”
“It was great, Dad.”
“Did you see in what poverty people live?” the father asked. “Oh yeah,” said the son. “So, tell me what you learned from the trip?” asked the father.
The son answered: “I saw that we have one dog and they had four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end… We have imported lanterns in our garden and they have the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front yard and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have servants who serve us, but they serve each other. We buy our food, but they grow theirs. We have walls around our property to protect us; they have friends to protect them.”
The boy’s father was speechless. Then his son added, “Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are.”
7. Why practice gratitude?
Over the past decade hundreds of studies have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude. The research suggests these benefits are available to mostly anyone who practices gratitude, even in the midst of adversity, such as elderly people confronting death, women with breast cancer and people coping with a chronic muscular disease.
Here are some of the top research-based reasons for practicing gratitude.
• Gratitude brings us happiness: Through research done by Emmons, happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky and many other scientists, practicing gratitude has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness and life satisfaction, It also boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm and other positive emotions.
• On the flip side gratitude reduces anxiety and depression.
• Gratitude is good for our bodies: Studies by Emmons and his colleague Michael McCullough suggest gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness and makes us less bothered by aches and pains. It encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health.
• Grateful people sleep better: They get more hours of quality sleep each night, spend less time awake before falling asleep and feel more refreshed upon awakening. If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.
• Gratitude makes us more resilient: It has been found to help people recover from traumatic events, including Vietnam War veterans with PTSD.
• Gratitude strengthens relationships: It makes us feel closer and more committed to friends and romantic partners. When partners feel and express gratitude for each other, they each become more satisfied within their relationship. Gratitude may also encourage a more equitable division of labour between partners.
• Gratitude promotes forgiveness—even between ex-spouses after a divorce.
• Gratitude makes us “pay it forward”. Grateful people are more helpful, altruistic and compassionate.
• Gratitude is good for kids: When 10 -19 year olds practice gratitude. They report greater life satisfaction and more positive emotion. They feel more connected to their community.
• Gratitude is good for schools: Studies suggest it makes students feel better about their school; it also makes teachers feel more satisfied and accomplished and less emotionally exhausted, possibly reducing teacher burnout.
Gratitude shifts your focus from what your life lacks to the abundance that is already present. In addition, behavioural and psychological research has shown the surprising life improvements that can result from the practice of gratitude. Giving thanks makes people happier and more resilient, it strengthens relationships, it improves health and it reduces stress.
8. How to Cultivate Gratitude?
Are you a natural pessimist? Take heart: the benefits of gratitude aren’t only available to people with a naturally grateful disposition. Instead, feeling grateful is a skill we can develop with practice, reaping its rewards along the way. Here are some of the most effective ways to cultivate gratitude, according to research.
• Keep a gratitude journal. Record three to five things for which you’re grateful every day or week. Especially take conscious decisions about what you can do to become more grateful and write it down. Write down specific things and people that make you feel grateful. Think about how your life would have been like without those things and people in your life than to accept it as a given. Furthermore, record nice surprizes you have never expected. It will enhance the good things in our life.
• Write a “gratitude letter to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly thanked. Research proved that gratitude letters provide strong and long-lasting happiness boosts, especially when they’re delivered in person.
• Savour the good in your life – don’t just gloss over the beauty and pleasures that come your way. Begin to enjoy it as if it is all new and start to live in it.
• Focus on intentions. When you receive a gift, or when something good happens to you in general, consider how someone tried on purpose to bring that goodness into your life, even at a cost to themselves. Research indicates that this goes a long way towards cultivating “an attitude of gratitude”, among children and adults alike.
• Teach gratitude to children. You can teach your children gratefulness early in their lives.
• Recognize the positive. Notice the positive things that happen every day, despite the overwhelming negative things that may have already happened. Even small positive things can be very valuable and useful.
• Get metaphysical. Research suggests that thinking hard about our own mortality makes us more grateful for life we currently enjoy Think of the many people who give meaning and purpose to your life. Another study found that praying more often increases gratitude.
9. Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25%
Psychological research finds that people’s happiness levels are remarkably stable over the long-term. Whether you win the lottery or are paralyzed from the neck down, after about three to six months you’ll have returned to your usual level of happiness. While these findings are deeply counter-intuitive, they also raise a serious problem for those wanting to increase levels of happiness permanently.
A possible answer comes from recent research in the psychology of gratitude. Yes, you read that correctly – being thankful might be the key to raising your happiness ‘set-point’. There is some good experimental evidence to back up this theory.
10. Counting blessings versus burdens
In his new book “thanks!”, Dr. Robert A. Emmons describes research he carried out with three experimental groups over 10 weeks (Emmons & McCullough, 2003):
1. The first group was asked to write down five things they were grateful for that had happened in the past week for each of the 10 weeks of the study. This was called the gratitude condition.
2. The second group was asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week. This was the hassles condition.
3. The third group simply listed five events that had occurred in the last week, but not told to focus on positive or negative aspects. This was the events or control condition.
The types of things people listed in the grateful condition included:
• Sunset through the clouds.
• The chance to be alive.
• The generosity of friends.
In the hassles condition:
• Hard to find parking.
• Burned my macaroni and cheese.
Before the experiment began participants had kept daily journals to chronicle their moods, physical health and general attitudes. These were then used to provide a comparison for after the experimental intervention.
People who were in the gratitude condition felt 25% happier – they were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives and even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those in the hassles or events condition.
All this from reflecting on the pleasure of having seen the sunset through the clouds? Dr Emmons also expresses surprise at the findings of the study, partly because there are some reasons practicing gratitude might not be so good.
For example, focusing on gratitude reminds us what we owe to others. This may in turn remind us of our dependence on others and reduce a sense of personal control. Thinking in terms of gratitude may also focus us on the debts we owe to others. Studies have shown, people don’t enjoy feeling indebted to others.
Just the effect of positive comparisons, or really gratitude?
Yet, despite these reasons why gratitude might not increase happiness, it seems that it does. But does the benefit from the gratitude condition simply result from thinking about how we are better off than others?
In a second study, very similar to the first described above, Emmons and McCullough changed one of the control conditions. Instead of asking people to write down any events from the week, people were asked to list ways in which they were better off than others. The idea was that in this condition people are making positive comparisons but are not necessarily thinking gratefully (although it can’t be ruled out!).
Again the results showed that those in the gratitude condition were significantly happier than those making positive comparisons between themselves and others. Unsurprisingly those practicing being grateful were also happier than those focusing on daily hassles.
Gratitude can help those with chronic health problems
A good criticism of the first two studies was that they were carried out in undergraduate students. It’s all very well increasing the happiness of young, healthy college students, but what about people with serious, chronic health problems?
In a third study Emmons and McCullough recruited adults who had neuromuscular disorders, often as a delayed result of surviving infection by the polio virus. While not life-threatening the condition can be seriously debilitating, causing joint and muscle pain as well as muscle atrophy. People with this condition have a good reason to be dissatisfied with the hand life has dealt them.
In this study a gratitude condition was compared to a control condition in which participants wrote about their daily experience. After the 21-day study, participants in the gratitude condition were found to be more satisfied with their lives overall, more optimistic about the upcoming week and crucially, were sleeping better. Good sleep is important as it has been found to be a great indicator of overall well-being. People who sleep well are generally healthier and happier than those whose sleep is poor.
The practice of gratitude, as an example, can also remind us of what we owe to other people. This, in turn, reminds us of our dependence on other people and reduces our sense of personal control, as if our welfare depends on other people. Thinking in terms of gratitude, thinking about what we owe to others means that we do not enjoy feeling guilty of other people at all. But despite of this reservation, the benefits of gratitude are always much more than the disadvantages.