“Gratitude is the moral memory of mankind. If every grateful action were suddenly eliminated, society would crumble.” Georg Simmel
Gratitude and happiness are intertwined and for good reason. It is no coincidence that positive psychology practitioners and happiness experts opine that in order to increase your contentment in life you need to boost your level of gratitude.
One of the leading researchers in gratitude is Dr. Robert Emmons. He has brought gratitude into the forefront by demonstrating how simple acts of gratitude can have a gigantic impact on well-being and happiness. Emmons argues that gratitude is more than feeling good.
It goes beyond the pleasant feeling because it implores people to share their joyful experiences with others. So in this sense gratitude is not about receiving, but it entails a large component of giving as well (2007).
Emmons and other positive psychology practitioners such as Martin Seligman believe the positive effects of gratitude can’t be overstated.
“Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them” (Seligman, 2012, p.30).
You can never be too grateful. When you take for granted the people and things you have in your life, instead of being grateful for them, you are missing out on an opportunity to live a healthier and happier life.
You are also ignoring the strength of social connection that gratitude creates. Not only will practicing gratitude benefit you psychologically and socially, but physically you will feel better as well.
Like anything else in life the benefits of gratitude can be cultivated through concentrated practice. There are a multitude of exercises at your disposal that will sustain your desire to manifest more gratitude into your life. And therefore, more well-being and contentment.
Below are a list of examples of ways to increase your levels of gratitude.
Writing down a few things you are grateful for is probably the easiest and most popular gratitude exercise available.
The purpose of the exercise is to think back on the past day, few days, or week, and remember 3-5 things you are especially grateful for. In this way, you are completely focusing on all the good things that happened to you in a given set of time.
There are varying opinions in the positive psychology arena about what is the appropriate amount of journaling one should do per week. Some people propose doing it every day while other suggest doing it once per week.
The arguments against doing it every day are that it can be tedious and forced. It becomes a practice you feel you should do or need to do instead of something you want to do. When journaling becomes a banal task and not an enjoyable practice then you need to adjust the amount of journaling you do.
Besides the benefit of zeroing in on the wonderful things you can be grateful for, this practice has been proven to increase sleep quality, decrease symptoms of sickness, and increase happiness and joy (Marsh, 2011).
It is important that you cater your practice to what you need. Perhaps journaling every day for a short amount of time will work, but over time the increased jubilation you enjoy from the daily practice probably won’t be manifested.
It is important that you sincerely pay attention to the things you are grateful for. Also, it will behoove you to express your gratitude more for people as opposed to objects.
Imagine your life without the things you are grateful before you begin writing. That should definitely boost your gratitude barometer.
This is perhaps the most powerful gratitude exercise there is. Write a hand-written letter to a person you are particularly grateful to have in your life.
Be detailed. Express all the wonderful qualities about this person, and how they personally have affected your life for the better. If you have the time personally deliver this letter to the person yourself.
Do it unexpectedly. Your level of gratitude should sky rocket, as you observe the bliss the receiver gets from your generous act. It will probably be one of the greatest gifts you will ever receive.
The positive effects of this gratitude exercise was researched and carried out by Kent State professor Steve Toepfer, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies.
In his 2007 study, his undergraduate students experienced enhanced levels of life satisfaction and happiness, as well as decreased symptoms of depression. Toepfer’s goal of this study was to determine the psychological benefits, if any, for the authors of these gratitude letters (Vincent, 2007).
The results from this study are quite straightforward. If you wish to increase your gratitude and happiness levels then intentionally script letters to inspiring people in your life.
If you are feeling down and maybe even depressed, you should most certainly give this practice a try. For an even further joy boost hand deliver your letter to the receivers so you can witness the receiver’s reactions for yourself.
Gratitude meditations are a double-whammy for well-being. You are essentially performing two of the most impactful happiness practice at the same time.
Meditation isn’t always easy especially when the mind is aggressively wandering and distracting your attention, but if you practice this kind of mediation consistently be prepared to experience incredible upgrades in gratitude and joy.
Unlike a normal meditation where you attempt to intentionally become aware of your breath and keep your mind clear, during a gratitude meditation you visualize all the things in your life that you are grateful for.
It is important to give each person or item the concentration it deserves. You can take the time to go through all the people you are grateful for or all the physical objects you are grateful for.
I like to simplify this sometimes and show gratitude for the things that are often taken for granted: the ability to breath, hands to touch, eyes to see, legs to walk and run, etc.
There are numerous advantages to meditating. These advantages are magnified when you take time to target your reasons for gratitude.
Spend some time really taking stock of the things you are grateful for and I am certain you will feel much better afterwards. It is a powerful exercise.
When you are going through a particularly rough time try cleansing your mind and your soul with a gratitude walk. Just as the combination of meditation and gratitude can combat stress or increase feelings of well-being, walking with a gratitude focal point can offer the same remedy.
Walking is therapeutic in itself. It has many health benefits such as increased endorphins that decrease stress, increased hearth health and circulation in the body, decreased lethargy, and decreases in blood pressure.
Couple this healthy activity with a grateful state of mind and you are bound to nurture a positive mind and body (Rickman 2013).
The goal of the gratitude walk is to observe the things you see around you as you walk.
Take it all in. Be aware of the nature, the colors of the trees, the sounds the birds make, and the smell of the plants. Notice how your feet feel when you step onto the ground.
Hopefully it will be easy to express gratitude for all the things that you are experiencing in the present moment. The effects are more potent when you can enjoy a gratitude walk with your partner or a friend. In this way you can show them appreciation for being able to spend the time walking together.
Similar to the gratitude journal except you are going to take pictures of all the things you are grateful for. This gives you the opportunity to visualize your gratitude. This can be more powerful than just viewing it as words on paper.
Try taking a picture of one thing you are grateful for every day for a week. Notice how you feel. Take a look back at the pictures every week. You don’t have to find grandiose things to be grateful for. A simple picture of a flower will do.
The more you do this the easier it will be for you to spot out the things you are grateful for. You will no longer take these simple things for granted.
Perhaps you will document multiple pictures in a day. After a given time period put all your pictures together in a collage and simply be grateful for all that you have.
Bonus gratitude exercise: The Can of Heinz Beans
The following gratitude exercise has been invented by Seph Fontane Pennock. For this exercise you’re going to need:
- a can of white beans
- a can opener
- a spoon
You buy a can of white beans – or any other beans for that matter – and you eat it for dinner without eating anything else that night. Just the beans.
There’s no warming them up or poring the beans into a nice cup. That’s considered cheating and it beats the purpose of the exercise. You simply grab a spoon, open up the can, imagine you’re sitting around the campfire at the foot of the Sierra Madra and dig in.
What is the purpose of the exercise?
The purpose of this gratitude exercise is to realize and appreciate how well off you are. Appreciation. Personally, it makes me realize that every day, I am able to eat all sorts of foods, flown or shipped in from all over the world for me to eat. It is quite extraordinary if you think about it, but we in the Western World (and beyond) have started taking this for granted.
During this exercise, what I noticed is that I automatically started to compare the beans that I’m eating with my regular meals. This allows me to take a moment and appreciate the foods I devour on a daily basis without even noticing how they got in my mouth, what it took for them to get there or even what they taste like.
The benefits I experienced
Performing this gratitude exercide once a week:
- makes me a more mindful eater
- makes me appreciate what I have in life, or at least, what I eat
- makes me realize that we don’t need so much in order to satisfy our basic human needs. Now I’m a big fan of pairing wines with the foods I cook or even the other way around, but all that is extreme luxury. And we musn’t forget it.
- allows me to actually enjoy the ritual and experience positive emotions while I’m eating my beans that tend to last throughout the whole evening. It’s funny, but it somehow always feels like I did good – like it matters.
The most powerful thing about this gratitude exercise is it’s simplicity. Performing this exercise is actually easier than its alternative, which means cooking up a whole meal (and ending up with the dishes).
What about your spouse and kids?
In case you are living with someone or if you have kids, you’re going to have more of a challenge in performing this exercise. You can either explain the exercise to them and invite them to join you if they wish (it’s important that they decide to do so themselves), or do the exercise on one of those evenings that you don’t get to eat together with your family or spouse. I happen to have at least one of these evenings per week, and that’s my Heinz beans night 😉
Will you commit to trying out this exercise?
At least try it once. That’s all I’m asking. Please let me know if you’re in by leaving a comment!
Emmons, R. (1 June 2007). Pay it forward. Greater Good Science Center. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/pay_it_forward
Marsh, J. (17 November 2011). Tips for keeping a gratitude journal. Greater Good Science Center. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal
Rickman, C. (9 November 2013). Walking into well-being: The power of the gratitude walk. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/cheryl-rickman/walking-and-wellbeing_b_3902687.html
Seligman, M (2012). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Vincent, E. (2014). Writing power: Kent state professor studies benefits of writing gratitude letters. Kent State University. http://www2.kent.edu/news/announcements/success/toepferwriting.cfm