Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that to achieve contentment, one should “cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”
Turns out Emerson – who explored the meaning of a good life in much of his work – wasn’t far off when it comes to what we now know about counting our blessings. Research continually finds that expressing thanks can lead to a healthier, happier and less-stressed lifestyle.
“Life is a series of problems that have to be solved – and a lot of times those problems cause stress,” Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher and psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, says. “Gratitude can be that stress buster.”
The way we celebrate holidays often includes a rhetoric of adopting an attitude of gratitude – but what about after the leftovers and family china have been put away? How do we, as Emerson advised, be thankful for each thing that contributes to our lives?
We can cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.Research shows that writing down what you’re thankful for can lead to a multitude of wellness benefits. Keeping a gratitude journal can reinforce positive thoughts – something particularly helpful as the brain tends to naturally focus on what goes wrong. Putting pen to paper can also help you make more progress as you work toward personal goals.
To reap the full benefits of journaling, Emmons recommends writing for five to 10 minutes every other day. “You really need to commit to doing it, and if you write it down eventually it will become more automatic,” Emmons says. “It’s like exercise – you’re not just going to get up one morning and go running, you need to have a plan. You need to have a gratitude action plan, whether it’s waking up and writing in the morning or in the evening before you go to sleep – no one size best fits all.”
Expressing gratitude may generate more optimism, but thankful people also don’t shy away from the negative. Emmons says that while we often associate gratitude with focusing on the good and avoiding the bad, the key to leading a thankful life is embracing setbacks as part of your overall journey. Emmons suggests recalling a hard time you once experienced – chances are, you’ll start to feel grateful for your current state and overcoming former challenges.
Thankful people know they didn’t get to where they are by themselves – and they make it a habit to spend time with those people who matter most. “Gratitude really helps us connect to other people,” Emmons says. “It actually strengthens relationships and relationships are the strongest predictors of happiness and coping with stress.”
Expressing appreciation for loved ones can also help create a closeness by allowing others to see how you look at them. “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Michael E. McCullough, a University of Miami researcher, told the New York Times in 2011. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person.”
Stating how much you appreciate your loved ones pays off. A recent study published in the journal Personal Relationships found that couples who expressed gratitude in their relationship had better marriages. Higher levels of thankfulness in the relationship also seemed to reduce men and women’s likelihood of divorce.
In our plugged-in culture, it’s impossible to avoid social media altogether. However, Emmons says, thankful people mindfully take advantage of these networks. ”Thankful people] use whatever cues that exist in everyday environments to trigger grateful thoughts,” he says. “Pictures and information on social media – that’s a very good way to do it.”
Research has found that positive thoughts shared on social media spread faster than than negative – something that makes the gratitude process a lot easier when turning to the Internet. Emmons suggests assembling an archive of postings on Facebook and Instagram to pull from when you need a reminder to be grateful. This method will help you cue happy memories through pages that you normally visit on a daily basis. “Technology and devices are criticized because you’re less connected, but if used correctly I think it can be the opposite,” Emmons said.
Know the value of the little things.There’s power in the small, ordinary moments, like catching the subway before the doors close or your pet greeting your happily when you get home. Look for things to add to your gratitude list, then help others appreciate them, too.
Small acts of kindness make a difference in a big way when it comes to cultivating gratitude. Thankful people make it a habit to acknowledge and pay forward each bit of kindness that comes their way, whether it’s a simple compliment, help on a task or getting flowers “just because.” Research shows this type of kindness makes both you and the other person happier.
Everyone needs a little help sometimes – and grateful people know there’s no better way to acknowledge this than by actively doing something about it. In his book Thanks!, Emmons notes that those who volunteer often feel grateful for the experience to give back. “Since service to others helped them to find their own inner spirituality, they were grateful for the opportunity to serve,” he wrote.
As research published in BMC Public Health points out, volunteering can result in lower feelings of depression and increased overall well-being. Emmons suggests examining your own talents and using them to help others, noting that people become more grateful as givers rather than receivers.
They may not seem similar, but gratitude and fitness can go hand-in-hand. According to Emmons’s 2003 study, people who practiced gratitude also engaged in more exercise. The results also found that study participants had fewer dietary restrictions and were less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol.
Exercising has been proven to clear your mind and reduce stress, all key components in setting yourself up for gratitude. Thankful people who move their feet experience an overall healthier mind and body, therefore making gratitude one of the best medicines, Emmons says.
Grateful people know that their thankful attitude can also fuel self-compassion. A study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with greater self-esteem. And it’s no wonder: When your well-being is a priority, you can’t help but feel great.
Thankful for being the person that you are should be at the top of your gratitude list.