With busy working lives and even busier minds, it can be hard to notice the little things, let alone be grateful for them. But giving thanks to people, places and small pleasures can make you feel instantly happier.
Recent research suggests a regular gratitude practice could foster positive emotions and increase physical health. More importantly, it could make you more likely to pay this thankfulness forward and strengthen social connections.
“It’s been shown time and time again that focusing on something beyond yourself plays a huge role in happiness. Being grateful reminds you that you’re part of the human race; that you can make things a little bit worse for everyone or make them better,” says occupational psychologist Kim Stephenson (tamingthepound. com). “Saying ‘thank you’, giving somebody a smile or appreciating their hard work will contribute to the happiness of others and, most of all, make you feel happier, too.”
Want in on the rewards? Here are eight ways to give thanks and feel happier every day.
1. Start a gratitude journal
Buy a notebook and take some time every day to write down three things you’re grateful for, or three things that went well today and why they went well. You don’t need to concentrate on the big things. If you’ve had a bad day and it’s hard to think of things to write, go back to basics.
“Remember when the boiler broke down, or the shower dried up and how hard it was to wash up or keep warm. Like a puppy’s enthusiasm or a baby’s smile, we take these things for granted,” says Stephenson. “Go back 200 years and think about all the stuff you have that your great grand parents didn’t and be grateful you’ve got them. You’ll soon find you feel positive.”
2. Be grateful for challenges
You can’t ‘be positive’ all the time so when a difficult day comes along instead of getting bogged down in it, think about what you have gained. “When somebody is nasty or inconsiderate, consider what you can learn,” says Stephenson. “When you look back on it, when all the hot emotions have faded, what will you be grateful for?”
3. Write a thank you letter
We might write letters to friends and family for gifts but Summer Allen, research and writing fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley (greatergood.berkeley.edu) believes long-form thank you messages at other times can be much more powerful. “Call to mind someone who did something for you, for which you are extremely grateful for and write them a letter,” says Allen. “Describe in specific terms what they did, why you are grateful, how this person’s behaviour affected your life and how you often remember his or her efforts. Deliver it in person, letting them know you have something special to share, and after reading discuss your feelings together. Sometimes expressions of thanks can be fleeting and superficial. This exercise encourages you to express gratitude in a thoughtful, deliberate way by writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to a person you have never properly thanked.”
4. Create a gratitude jar
Buy a jar and place it somewhere you will see it every day. Each day write a note on a small scrap of paper – something that made you smile, the beauty of nature, goals you’ve achieved, people you are grateful for – and pop them in the jar. A gratitude jar is a lovely visual reminder of the good things in life and is perfect to dip into when you are feeling down. Look back at the end of a month or six months and remember all the good things that happened to you, or have fun sharing it with a loved one.
5. Take the compliment challenge
Giving and receiving compliments can be hard, but practicing regularly can make you and others around you more grateful. “Write a positive text message or email each morning praising or thanking a different person each day. It builds relationships and makes you feel good,” says Stephenson. “Equally, if somebody says: ‘you look good’, train yourself to say ‘thank you’, and avoid the usual ‘what, this old thing’ comments! By being grateful and appreciating the compliment, you can make the other person feel good and encourage them to spread the goodwill.”
6. Go on a savouring walk
“Set aside 20 minutes to take a walk by yourself every day for a week and try to notice as many positive things around you as you can,” suggests Allen. “Think about sights, sounds, smells, or other sensations. For example, you could focus on the breathtaking height of a tree you never really noticed before or the dance of sunshine off a window or puddle. Registers each one, don’t just let them slip past you, and try to identify what makes them pleasurable. Try to stick to this schedule every day, and take a different route so you don’t start taking all of the things that you see for granted.”
7. Turn the mundane into the marvellous
Try turning ordinary tasks on their head and see them as opportunities. “On your daily commute, pay attention to what’s happening now. This way, each commute becomes a practice in presentmoment awareness, as opposed to minutes of random mental activity,” says meditation teacher Emma Mills (emmamillslondon.com), author of Inhale. Exhale. Repeat – a meditation handbook for every part of your day. “Similarly, whenever you sit down to eat, take a moment to pause. Reflect on how fortunate you are to be in this position. You aren’t so much thankful for something in particular, like ‘joy’ or ‘friends’ but just grateful to be. Grateful for life.”
8. Grow a gratitude garden
Gratitude gardens have taken off in the U.S both in the virtual and real sense. They can be as simple as a notice board in an office, which people can ‘cultivate’ with sticky notes of gratitude for someone or something that day; little flags planted in a park with grateful thoughts written on them; or pots of plants that remind you of someone or something. In the process of nurturing the garden, we can be reminded to be grateful for that person, place or thing.
The benefits of gratitude
Summer Allen outlines the health-giving reasons it’s worth paying thanks…
Multiple studies have found people who were assigned to do gratitude practices had increased happiness and more satisfaction with their lives compared to people assigned to do other activities. A 2003 study found that people who kept a daily gratitude journal for two weeks had a more positive mood and were more likely to have helped someone. In another, participants that were asked to write a letter of gratitude found they were significantly happier one month later and had decreased symptoms of depression. Happiness levels dropped back to baseline by six months, which suggests writing one every few months could derive the most benefits (plus, it’s just a really kind thing to do!)
Better physical health
Studies have found that people who tried gratitude exercises had fewer physical symptoms such as headaches, sore muscles and nausea than people who were assigned to other activities. In particular, women who kept a gratitude journal, where they wrote about previously unappreciated people and things in their lives for two weeks, ended up with lower blood pressure than those who just wrote about daily events.
In a study of people with clinically impaired sleep, more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day. It’s thought this is because more grateful people have fewer negative thoughts and more positive ones at bedtime.