How Practicing Gratitude Every Day Can Lead to Increased Levels of Happiness

In Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier, Harris writes about his deeply personal journey, relaying how meditation changed his life. He claims practicing meditation was not a “cure all” approach, but incorporating the practice of mindfulness into his life did make him at least 10 percent happier.

Pssst…I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you’re interested in another 10 percent of happiness, recent studies have shown keeping a gratitude journal may be the answer (and we all know a 20 percent markup is much higher than a 10 percent one).

So what’s all this gratitude talk about? Doesn’t Thanksgiving count, and isn’t that one day of gratitude enough?

Gratitude has many definitions, but the word means different things to everyone. Some words different people might associate with gratitude include: thankfulness, appreciation, pleasing, kindness, or meaningful. And one’s personal definition could shift every day.

Whichever way you choose to define gratitude is perfectly fine; feeling grateful can take on a variety of forms and does not necessarily fit neatly into one box. On a given day, you could feel grateful for a multitude of things: a simple warm meal on a cold and rainy day, the brief second when you switch from panicked and rushed to calm and collected, all because you found your keys just in time as you’re running late, or those moments every once in a while when you’re with friends or family and you find yourself laughing until you cry. As you begin to practice gratitude daily, you may notice one thing to be true: it is always there, somewhere. In whichever way a moment where you can express gratitude may show up in your life on a given day, more often than not, it is lurking and waiting for you to notice.

Here is a little background on recent research on gratitude, and some effective ways to incorporate the practice into your daily life.

A Background on Today’s Gratitude Research

Shawn Achor is one of the leading “happiness researchers.” His clients range from major technology companies to local junior high students. His work focuses on the positive attributes of psychology, such as joy and gratitude, rather than the negative aspects, like depression and anxiety, which often receive the majority of the spotlight in psychological research.

It seems that as a society, we often focus on the bad instead of the good. In fact, for human beings it’s actually a survival mechanism to focus on the bad—it’s our bodies way of making sure we stay out of dangerous or negative situations. But it does not have to be this way.

Perhaps you’ve even seen a quote of Achor’s floating around on Pinterest: “Scientifically, happiness is a choice.”

I know, I know we’ve all heard something to that effect and it sounds like that thing your parents say when you’ve had a bad day: i.e. “Happiness is a choice, honey,” or “Just be happy,” or “Look around, you have so much to be grateful for.”

When we were younger, we may have rolled our eyes when adults said things like this because we were upset Johnny had gotten the last scoop of chocolate ice cream instead of us—and nothing was going to change that feeling of loss and betrayal. Things felt even worse a few years later when Johnny became the love of our life, and instead of getting the last scoop of ice cream, he was dating the last person we would’ve wanted him to after our break up. Long story short, sometimes it’s easy to hyper-focus on the bad rather than see the good. Like the fact that the day Johnny had the last of the chocolate ice cream, we were starting a lifelong romance with rocky road. Or maybe the day Johnny started dating his new piece of arm candy, we could finally move on to better matches.

How Practicing Gratitude Rewires the Brain

Despite the overused phrasing of the clichéd “be grateful for what you’ve got” sentiment, there is scientifically backed truth to the idea that happiness is a choice. Though recent scientific studies have shown that optimistic and pessimistic predispositions could potentially be a result of genetics, Achor’s work on the positive impacts of practicing gratitude reveals a potential reversal of these genetic influences.

After a 21 day study in which participants wrote down three things they were grateful for each day (without repeating the same thing as the days before), the researchers found that practicing gratitude actually made people happier. The most surprising part of the research? Those who initially tested as low pessimists on the Optimism and Pessimism Scale later tested as low optimists after the 21 days.

In a radio interview in October 2018, Achor shared more about the topic: “If we actually make conscious actions within our life; changes to our daily habits or the way we interact with others, we can actually break the tyranny of genes and environment over the trajectory of our levels of optimism. We don’t have to be victims of the genes that we didn’t pick or the environment that has become so big.”

Practicing gratitude for those 21 days actually rewires the brain, causing thought patterns to naturally shift to in a more positive direction. Many who incorporate gratitude for only 21 days end up continuing the practice afterward because it has such beneficial impacts on their own feelings of happiness. Since the majority of studies reveal 21 days of gratitude can create real change in quality of life, here are a couple of ways to experiment with gratitude in your very own life.

How to incorporate gratitude into your daily life in three steps

Step 1: For 21 days, write down three new things you are grateful for each day.

Write down three new things you are grateful for every day for 21 days. This can be done in the morning or at night. There may be benefits to recording the gratitude list at night, as the memories from the day may be fresher.

Step 2: Write down why you are grateful for each instance of gratitude.

The key here is not just listing the three items, but writing down why you are grateful for those items. By writing down why you are grateful for a given event that occurred during your day, you are recording the meaning of the event for you personally. This trains your brain to highlight the feeling behind what makes you feel grateful (happiness, joy, love, empathy, feeling cared for, etc.), rather than simply jotting down the thing itself.

Step 3: Write down three details about each of the three things you are grateful for.

The next step is to write down three details about each experience. This could be what you were wearing, what you were thinking about, a detail about where you were, or how your hair looked. Detailing the events makes your brain relive the positive experience a second time. By journaling about the event, you are doubling the memory, and since your brain cannot tell the difference between visualization and reality, you are essentially creating a duplicate of the same event in your brain’s database. (Too many good things are never a bad thing, especially when it comes to our pattern forming brain).

A bonus way to incorporate gratitude into your daily life?

Another way to incorporate gratitude into your life during those 21 days of journaling is to thank someone different every day in a 2-minute text message or email. The best way to do this is to set aside two or so minutes every morning to send a positive message to someone you are grateful for.

By expressing your gratitude for someone else, you are actually strengthening your own sense of worth, because you’ll spend part of the day feeling great about sending a positive message that brightened someone else’s day. Studies have shown that after participants completed this study during a 21-day trial, they revealed increased levels of social connection. Social connection is not social connectedness in terms of social networking sites, but the true breadth, depth, and meaning of our social relationships.

By doing this 2-minute exercise, participants social connection score rose to the top ten percent worldwide. Increased social connection scores can improve quality of life, boost mental health, and actually increase longevity.

Featured image by Thư Anh

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