By: Dr. Jan Anderson, Psy.D., LPCC
Studies show that the regular practice of gratitude can increase not just your well-being and happiness, but also improve your physical health and your relationships.
I was in the audience as Business First publisher Tom Monahan went one-on-one with Yum! Brands Inc. President and CEO David Novak to learn how a boy who lived in 32 trailer parks in 23 states by the time he reached seventh grade became the head of the world's largest restaurant company at age 47. As they discussed Novak's unique leadership style, his commitment to fighting hunger and his new book, "Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make BIG Things Happen," I noted in particular two things that Mr. Novak said.
"It's the soft stuff that drives the hard results."
In a similar vein, he offered two observations about why people leave a job: 1) They don't get along with their boss 2) They don't feel appreciated
Marriage researcher and relationship expert John Gottman says that what makes many marriages unhappy or end in divorce is not fighting or infidelity, but simply not feeling appreciated - being taken for granted. Gottman says that what really keeps real-life romance alive is each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.
HOW GRATITUDE CAN IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH, HAPPINESS AND RELATIONSHIPS
Gratitude – expressing thankfulness, gratefulness or appreciation - has become a mainstream focus of psychological research. Not surprisingly, studies show that the regular practice of gratitude can increase not just your well-being and happiness, but also improve your physical health and your relationships.
My favorite gratitude study involved three groups, each with a very different assignment. One group was instructed to focus each week on things they perceived as irritating, annoying or frustrating. The second group focused each week on things for which they were grateful. The control group focused on ordinary life events during the week.
The results found that the people who focused on gratitude were unmistakably happier - in just about all aspects of their lives. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms such as headaches or colds, and they spent almost an hour and a half more per week exercising than those who focused on negatives. Simply put, those who were grateful had a higher quality of life.
Most interesting is that others noticed that these people had more joy and more energy. As the study progressed, participants in the other two experimental groups could see that the grateful group was becoming more optimistic.
In a follow-up study, those who found something to appreciate every day were observed to be less materialistic, less depressive, envious and anxious, and much more likely to help others, a fact not lost on those around them. When others were asked their impressions of the daily-gratitude group, they generally judged them as empathic and helpful to others. This effect was not observed in either of the other two groups.
As research author Robert Emmons put it, "This is not just something that makes people happy, like a positive-thinking/optimism kind of thing. A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate."
The bottom line: The study found that the participants who were consciously grateful felt better about their lives, were more optimistic, more enthusiastic, more determined, more interested, more joyful and more likely to have helped someone else. Other studies show that these psycho-emotional benefits are accompanied by health benefits as well: more energy, more restful sleep, clearer thinking, better resilience during tough times, fewer illnesses and fewer stress-related conditions. Those that are grateful exercise more and live longer - and evidently happier - lives.
BLOCKS TO GRATITUDE AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM
It sounds so simple and easy, but don't be surprised if you encounter some common blocks to cultivating gratitude. Paraphrased here are some of author Kathy Freston's insights for how to fix faulty thinking about gratitude.
MYTH #1: If I am grateful for my present situation, it means I'm satisfied with what I have and cannot hope for something more. REALITY: When we are grateful for what we have now, we are actually programming ourselves for more; it becomes natural to gravitate toward more satisfying situations.
MYTH #2: Gratitude makes me a sucker. It makes me happy to have the booby prize. REALITY: Being thankful doesn't force us to be happy with what we're stuck with, but simply indicates that we are appreciative of all the good we already have. It's entirely possible to be both grateful for some (now), as well as grateful for more (to come).
MYTH #3: If I am grateful, I'll feel small and diminished by a "meek" stance in a tough world. REALITY: It takes confidence and strength to express gratitude. Being appreciative tends to makes people want to do more for us, not less.
MYTH #4: If I get too grateful, I won't be motivated or ambitious to move forward. REALITY: Gratitude doesn't make us lazy - it inspires and energizes us to get more of that feeling of well-being.
A DAILY PRACTICE TO CULTIVATE GRATITUDE
To begin cultivating gratitude, be open and receptive (and if necessary, look diligently) for something to be thankful for in each of the following areas of your life on a daily basis. Good times to do this are as you are waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night.
- Body/Physical Health
- Contribution (random acts of kindness).
- Appreciation of Beauty
It is particularly helpful to do this practice when things are going well - when you've had a good day or something good happened. In other words, "dig the well before the house is on fire." Do this practice often enough and regularly enough to let it take root in your psyche and become part of your lifestyle, a part of the way you think and live. When you notice you've lost touch with this practice or forgotten about it, just begin again.
Don't be surprised to find that you begin to structure your whole day around the practice of gratitude. Whenever you have a few moments to yourself, this is where you can let your mind center - looking for something to be grateful about.
Dr. Jan Anderson, Psy.D., LPCC, has a unique ability to focus on the well-being of the whole person. In addition to a doctorate in clinical psychology and a private counseling practice, she also has real-world corporate business experience and expertise in the mind-body connection. Dr. Jan enjoys speaking and writing about a range of topics she is passionate about - relationships, wellness, work and spirituality. You can read her blogs at www.DrJanAnderson.com or contact her at LifeWise@DrJanAnderson.com.