The Science Behind Gratitude

The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.

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Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.

You’d think that just one of these findings is compelling enough to motivate an ingrate into action. But if you’re anything like me, this motivation lasts about three days until writing in my gratitude journal every evening loses out to watching stand-up comics on Netflix.

Here are a few keys I’ve discovered—and research supports—that help not only to start a gratitude practice, but to maintain it for the long haul.

Freshen Up Your Thanks

The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing “I’m grateful for my family” week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my husband gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed” or “My sister invited me over for dinner so I didn’t have to cook after a long day.” And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you.

Get Real About Your Gratitude Practice

Being excited about the benefits of gratitude can be a great thing because it gives us the kick we need to start making changes. But if our excitement about sleeping better because of our newfound gratitude keeps us from anticipating how tired we’ll be tomorrow night when we attempt to journal, we’re likely to fumble and lose momentum. When we want to achieve a goal, using the technique of mental contrasting—being optimistic about the benefits of a new habit while also being realistic about how difficult building the habit may be – leads us to exert more effort. Recognise and plan for the obstacles that may get in the way.

Be Social About Your Gratitude Practice

Our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness. So it makes sense to think of other people as we build our gratitude. Robert Emmons suggests that focusing our gratitude on people for whom we’re thankful rather than circumstances or material items will enhance the benefits we experience. And while you’re at it, why not include others directly into your expression of gratitude? One Happify activity suggests writing a gratitude letter to someone who had an impact on you whom you’ve never properly thanked. You could also share the day’s grateful moments around the dinner table. The conversations that follow may give you even more reasons to give thanks.