Life is a journey of challenges and triumphs for all of us, but have you noticed that some people, even when faced with difficulties, remain grateful for the smallest of kindnesses and find happiness in the simplest of pleasures?
Researchers have found that gratitude may help increase positive feelings, which may also aid psychological resilience by protecting against the effects of negative emotions. Some of us may have a “grateful personality” experiencing gratitude as a stable “affective trait” and many of us will identify with experiencing gratitude as a transient emotional state, following, for example, a positive event, a spiritual experience, or a pleasurable pastime.
While acknowledging the ups and downs of life and without suggesting we live with a constant sense of “Pollyanna” style gladness, there have been many studies which have shown that grateful individuals are more likely to remain positively focused when things don’t go to plan, are less likely to exhibit symptoms of physical illness and as studies found, are less inclined towards suicidal tendencies.
Grateful people are often perceived as likeable, may actively engage in prosocial behaviours with no expectation of reciprocity and make the most of what life brings, even when circumstances are far from ideal.
So, what about those for whom gratitude does not come so naturally? The good news is that we can learn to be more grateful. Researchers suggest that there is no age limit to the beneficial effects of learning and applying positive behaviours. Though Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, suggests that for positive practices to be effective, we need to decide to make them a habit.
Research has shown that engaging in positive ‘self-talk’ rather than negativity and rumination is key to our well-being. Where someone might otherwise perceive that circumstances are out of their control, purposeful positive thoughts and actions such as practising gratitude as a positive psychological intervention (PPI) may have more of an effect on our well-being than the kind of personality we have, our socioeconomic status or our physical abilities.
Not only might practising experiencing feelings of gratitude make us feel happier, but according to Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build theory“, the more we experience gratitude and the enhanced sense of well-being, the more likely we are to continue the practice, leading to further expressions of gratitude and a perpetual gratitude-happiness cycle.
The positive effects of positive psychological interventions are well documented and even with our constant modern-day busyness, gratitude practices can easily be incorporated into our everyday lives.
With a little effort and commitment to ongoing practice, many people have found that gratitude practices lead to a sustainable and noticeable increased sense of well-being.
If you would like to give gratitude practice a go, here is a tried and tested intervention which might help you begin. The “Three Good Things Exercise” is a simple but highly effective exercise, suitable for everyone, even for those who have never engaged in a positive practice before. It need not take long and can be fitted in before bedtime so that it encourages a sense of positivity before you end the day. It might be a good idea to buy a special notebook just for this purpose and you only need to commit to doing this for a week.
- Take a few minutes to think about three good things which happened during your day and write them down one by one, leaving some space between each item. (They can be very simple things, such as a smile from a stranger, hearing a favourite piece of music or experiencing a beautiful sunset).
- Think about why you are grateful for each item and add the reasons to each line.
- Do this every night and at the end of the week, re-read all of the previous week’s notes.
Many people find that once they start focusing on what went well during their days, they focus less on what went wrong and they want to carry on the practice. People who try this exercise may experience a reduction in depressive symptoms even up to six months later, with only one week’s practice.
If you do decide to give this a go, notice how you might begin to experience gratitude for things as they are happening during your day and if want to progress with your practice, Gratitude Works by Robert Emmons, is a great 21-day programme of simple-to-do gratitude interventions. All it takes is the decision to try and by starting with just “three good things”, you may make 2019 your most grateful year yet.
Monique Zahavi is a positive psychology practitioner with a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from Buckinghamshire New University.