After all, the great lesson is that no special natural sights that is more grand and more beautiful than the ordinary sunrise and sunset, earth and sky, the common trees and grass.Walt Whitman
After a year of disruptions in our everyday life, many of us have realized to renew appreciation for the simple life moments we once took for granted.
It can be difficult to find the positives at times of challenges. The great thing about keeping a gratitude ritual is that it nudges us to think about things we can be thankful for. These don’t even need to be big things!
Derived from the Latin word gratus, gratitude is the ability to feel thankful and show appreciation for all things good in your life, be it immaterial or material.
I cannot help but recall a London commuting moment.
It was a rainy end of afternoon in the London tube on a cold December month. I was commuting back from work, sitting down, and as often observing people getting in and out at each station where my journey would stop by. At one stop, a lovely couple of elderly Japanese jumped in, soaked with the English monsoon weather and trying to squeeze in the crowded carriage. I immediately stood up to let them my seat, which they were very thankful for. The old man took out a notepad from his bag smiling at me, and started scribbling something. I carried on miles away in my thoughts until my final destination.
As I was about to get out, this old Japanese gentleman stopped me to hand me over a beautiful drawing calligraphy and bowed saying “Arigatou thank you” … His wife who spoke a little bit English told me he was an artist and wanted to thank me for the seats.
I was so humbled and touched by this polite and human touch in an often too impersonal commuting journey, that it reminded me how powerful gratitude can be in our everyday life.
Benefits of gratitude
Since ancient times, philosophers and sages from every spiritual tradition have taught that the key to experiencing deeper levels of happiness, fulfilment, and wellbeing is cultivating gratitude. One of the earliest advocates of a daily gratitude practice was Dutch philosopher Rabbi Baruch Spinoza.
Now, through the work of leading researchers like Robert Emmons and Martin Seligman, we have science-backed evidence that gratitude virtue is more than just saying, “thank you.”
Numerous studies are demonstrating how gratitude journaling can increase one’s happiness.
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
It is associated with improvements in mood, life satisfaction, and overall well being.
Grateful people tend to be happier and show lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol … but higher levels of the “feel good” hormones, dopamine (pleasure) and serotonin (optimism).
The more you practice feeling grateful, the stronger that muscle gets.
In a white paper by The Greater Good Science Center titled, “The Science of Gratitude” (2018), several benefits to gratitude practice are outlined.
For the individual:
- increased happiness and positive mood
- more satisfaction with life
- less materialistic
- less likely to experience burnout
- better physical health
- better sleep
- less fatigue
- lower levels of cellular inflammation
- greater resiliency
- encourages the development of patience, humility, and wisdom
- increases prosocial behaviors
- strengthens relationships
- may help employees’ effectiveness
5 rituals to reap the positive benefits of gratitude
STEP 1: Appreciative daily ritual
Research (from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida) shows that taking time to experience gratitude can make you happier and even healthier.
People who keep a gratitude journal and write down at least five things that they are grateful for and why, enjoy higher levels of emotional and physical well-being, lower their self-reported stress levels and get a greater sense of calm at night.
According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day — and why the events made them happy — lowered their self-reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night.
Each night for about 2-3 weeks, take 5-10 minutes to write down five things for which you are grateful.
Journaling is a great way to practise mindfulness and connect with your thoughts and feelings.
These five things can be little things (e.g. a meal you enjoyed or a meaningful conversation with a friend) or big things (e.g. a business deal or promotion, a loved one healed from a serious disease).
The key is, despite the repetition, keep emotions fresh, imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feelings associated with it.
You can just write a word or short phrase, but as you write these things down, take a moment to be mindful of the things you’re writing about (e.g., imagine the person or thing you’re writing about).
You can do this exercise on your own or with a loved one (e.g. a partner, a child, parent, sibling, or closed friend). Expressing gratitude together can contribute in a meaningful way to the relationship, by telling one another what has made you happier in the past day, month or year.
It doesn’t have to be a written journal. Lots of people journal visually, by drawing daily gratitude sketches or taking photos of things they are grateful for or using an app.
As a family, keep a “gratitude jar” where everyone puts in a little paper with what they are grateful for every day and you open these on the week-end.
Create visual reminders.
e.g. sticky notes, notifications to remind yourself of what you are grateful for throughout the day.
Practise habits stacking.
If you find it hard to fit in time for a gratitude practice, try working gratitude into your life through habit-stacking. For example, when you wash your hands or teeth or take your shower, you have an opportunity to remember 3-5 things you are grateful for! It is an easy way of adding meaning to these routine moments – and without having to find any more time in your day.
Use the following prompts if needed:
- Who do I love in my life? Why do I love them? How do these people make me feel?
- What am I proud of in my life?
- Who has shown me kindness in my life? How have they shown me kindness?
- What or who makes me happy in my life?
- What material possessions do I have that I’m grateful for and why?
- What challenges have I endured that I can now be thankful for?
- What am I happy about right now? How does it make me feel?
Evening gratitude prompts:
- What is the best thing that happened today?
- What / who made me smile or brought me happiness today today?
- What or who inspired me today?
- Who or what brought me comfort and deep peace today?
STEP 2: Replace “have to” with “get to”
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” (Abraham Lincoln)
“One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.” (Dale Carnegie)
It is often a matter of perspective. When you shift the words you use, you change your entire perspective and therefore your approach around what you are looking to accomplish today. Think about all of the things you “have to” do today. Replace the phrase, “I have to” with “I get to”. It is a small shift, but it makes all the difference in your approach and your attitude.
Aimee Mullins epitomizes the power of gratitude. She was born with a medical condition that required that she had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was a child. She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run and went on to achieving incredible athletic achievements. Her TED conference talks are amongst the most-viewed of all time.
“Part of me would have loved to have felt sand between my toes … But am I disabled because I haven’t? I don’t think so. Sometimes when I go to the beach with friends, and we are walking barefoot over pebbles and they are “oohing” and “ouching”, I think, “I’m really happy right now.” Life is about making your own happiness – and living by your own rules.” “Adversity is just change that we haven’t accepted ourselves to yet.”
STEP 3: Be mindful of your 5 senses
Be mindful of your five senses. How does each enhance your life?
Breathe, pause, and be grateful for the air that is filling your lungs and making your life possible. Pay attention to your senses, to everything you are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and maybe even tasting, and see how many things you can find to feel grateful for.
Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. It lowers cortisol and norepinephrine in the brain which cause anxiety and allows us to stay present in the moment and slow down. In the present, all potentials exist to change our internal state regardless of the outside world. We can’t do this by feeling guilt /judgement / anxiety / fear / stress, ruminating or regretting the past, or being anxious about the future.
Take a “mindfulness gratitude walk”.
A gratitude walk is a powerful way to shift your mood. It is particularly useful when you are feeling down or filled with stress and worry.
Set aside 20 minutes (or longer if you can) and walk in your neighborhood, through a park, around your office, or somewhere in nature.
As you walk, consider the many things for which you are grateful for – e.g. nurturing relationships, your health and that of your loved ones, and the nature around you.
“Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.
This is not a dress rehearsal, and today is the only guarantee you get.”
(Anna Quindlen, 2000 commencement speech at Villanova University)
STEP 4: Share gratitude
One of the most fascinating facts about gratitude is the de-multiplied impact it has when shared with someone else. One of the best ways to be happier and to gain clarity is to make other people happier
When you care for other people’s fulfilment, your mindset widens and your own problems become less significant, which increases your inner peace and your own happiness.
When you forget about yourself and your problems, and you focus on helping others, your anxiety and fear lessen and you gain a better perspective on life.
Kindness, like happiness, is contagious. There’s a name for it: “moral elevation.” When you feel this sense of moral “elevation”, not only do you say you want to be a better person and help others but you actually do, when the opportunity presents itself.
“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Marcel Proust)
Give daily “thank you”.
Gratitude has profound effects on the happiness of both the giver and the receiver, and on the relationships. If you acknowledge people even for small favours they are also more likely to want to help you out in bigger ways in the future.
Send 5 thanks a week.
One of the most effective ways to build powerful relationships (e.g. partner, family member, dear friend, business contact, client, mentor, manager, colleague) is to thank people for all they do for you, and acknowledge them. Make it one of your weekly rituals for 15 minutes a day, to send at least 5 thank you notes a week – whether this is a text, email or even hand-written note (e.g. beautiful postcards, card with inspiring quotes, photography) as it is more personal and will be more remembered and appreciated (particularly in this modern time!).
The power of gratitude is also true in business (e.g. rituals, practices, appreciation programs, interventions, helping others) to empower and engage teams.
Researchers from Wharton found that gratitude in the form of managers saying thank you to their employees for their efforts motivated them to work harder.
Doug Conant, who took the reins at Campbell Soup in 2001, is famous for having created a company culture of gratitude. The stock price was falling and it was the worst performer of all the major food companies in the world. By 2009, the company was ahead of the S&P Food Group and the S&P 500. Over the course of his 10-year career leading the soup giant, Doug Conant wrote at least 30,000 thank-you notes to employees and clients. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Doug Conant explained that he sent handwritten notes because more than half of Campbell Soup associates didn’t use a computer. “Have you ever noticed how a pat on the back makes you feel great for days? If the praise comes in handwritten or email form, maybe you frame the note and put it on your wall so it can lift you up on a tough day or help you feel more engaged at work. Years of studies by Gallup and other research groups have shown that engaged employees are much more productive. Sadly, kudos from bosses are all too rare. Believe me, I know.” (Doug Conant)
STEP 5: Savour
Savoring turns up the dial of our positive emotions. This is a great way to bring yourself into the moment, past focused, present focused, or future focused.
Our days are the addition of the micro moments we experience. Our lives are an accumulation of little experiences. Why not savor experiences and dial up positive emotions?
Savoring involves mindfully engaging in thoughts or behaviors that heighten the effect of positive events and positive emotions. There are 3 types of savoring: Anticipatory savoring (looking forward to a positive event); Savoring the moment (intensifying and prolonging the enjoyment of a current experience); and Reminiscing (reviewing a past event to rekindle positive feelings). e.g. Did you have a win at work or do you just return from a wonderful holiday? Think about that and share it! Are you looking forward to dinner out with your significant other tonight? Take a few minutes and think about the delicious smells in the restaurant and what you will order.
It is a form of mindfulness practice and all about paying attention to the moment. Instead of multitasking and being focused on the past and future and on the present negativity all around, those of us who are most satisfied with our lives stop to enjoy the beauty and the small, amazing things in life.
Here is a fun video on savoring, of how Pixar’s Pete Docter got out of his head and savored the good in his life.
- Practice the art of savoring by picking one experience to truly savor each day (e.g. a nice shower with an uplifting or relaxing fragranced shower gel, a delicious meal, a great walk outside, or any experience that you really enjoy).
- When you take part in this savored experience, be sure to practice some common techniques that enhance savoring. These techniques include: sharing the experience with another person, thinking about how lucky you are to enjoy such an amazing moment, keeping a souvenir or photo, and making sure you stay in the present.
- Note: You can also recall a negative event, or all that have not happened / all the bad things that could have happened but didn’t. Doing this helps you appreciate your current situation.
When gratitude becomes your default way of seeing life, you become more aware of how much you have to be grateful for and reap the mood-boosting benefits! However you do it, it is a magical gift to give yourself that is available to all of us, all the time.