Gratitude is a sentiment we'd all do well to cultivate, according to positive psychologists, mental health clinicians and researchers who seek to help everyone create more joy in life. Feeling thankful and expressing that thanks makes you happier and heartier not hokier.
The biggest bonuses come from experiencing gratitude habitually, but natural ingrates needn't despair. Simple exercises can give even skeptics a short-term mood boost, and "once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for," says Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher at the University of California at Davis.
Gratitude needn't be directed at another person to hit its mark. Take just a few minutes each day to jot down things that make you thankful, from the generosity of friends to the food on your table or the right to vote. After a few weeks, people who follow this routine "feel better about themselves, have more energy and feel more alert," Emmons says. Feeling thankful even brings physical changes, studies show. List-keepers sleep better, exercise more and gain a general contentment that may counteract stress and contribute to overall health.
For people who want to activate their gratitude, but feel slightly silly about the exercises, Peterson advises, "fake it until you can make it." Say "thank you" enough, he reasons, and your mind will fall in line with your words. Think you don't have anyone to thank? Gratitude "doesn't depend on circumstances," Emmons says.
You can be grateful for just about anything that you've received in part because of someone or something else. You may feel grateful to your neighbor for a car pool, to luck for meeting your spouse, to nature for a scenic view or to fate or a higher power for your safety. Thankfulness helps you see that you're an object of love and care. Says Emmons: "Your self-esteem is bolstered when you say, 'Hey, people have done things for me.'"
Traumatic memories fade into the background for people who regularly feel grateful, Watkins's experiments show. Troublesome thoughts pop up less frequently and with less intensity, which suggests that gratitude may enhance emotional healing. Thankfulness helps the brain fully process events, Watkins speculates. Grateful people achieve closure by making sense of negative events so that they mesh with a generally positive outlook.
When individuals start a daily gratitude journal, they begin to feel a greater sense of connectedness to the world. "The differences are noticed by others," Emmons says. "People who know them say they're more helpful." Thankfulness may launch a happy cycle in which rich friendships bring joy, which gives you more to be grateful for, which fortifies your friendships once again.