You know the Thanksgiving tradition that many American families have, to go around the table and say what each person is grateful for? We’ve done it on and off in my own family, but then at some point it hit me that we can all say the words… I’m thankful for my family or I’m thankful for the house we live in… but how can we teach our children (and ourselves) to actually mean it?
So I’ve researched and researched gratitude. The answer to this was surprisingly hard to find.
It’s fairly easy to find the benefits for gratitude. They are abundant and seems to be one of the most foundational elements of a happy life...
"Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait - more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and gratitude as a discipline protects us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness and enjoy more robust physical health." -Robert Emmons, Gratitude Works!
...just to name a few of the benefits. But it really is mind-blowing how beneficial gratitude is. The Science of Happiness course does an amazing job of outlining all the scientific aspects of gratitude - how it effects your health, your mind, what it's challenges are, and what are some of the best gratitude practices. Highly recommend this course to any parent through Berkeley online, and it's free! It really is amazing.
But I finally found my answer to this question in Robert Emmons' book, Gratitude Works!. He is a gratitude researcher from UC Davis.
First and foremost it is about "growing gratitude," writes Robert Emmons. So if you are the most ungrateful person - no worries. All you need to do is start practicing it. To me, the best way seems to be through a gratitude journal, where you put about 3 things down each day that you are grateful for.
The point is, it's okay if at first you are not fully and deeply feeling the gratefulness for each of those 3 things. But if you keep at it, looking for 3 good things a day, your brain will start to adapt to help you look, even when you are not consciously searching. Since your brain will begin to know that at the end of the day it'll need 3 good things to write about, it'll start picking up on happy things on it's own throughout your day... Wow, that tree is beautiful! Wow, I love our little house. Look at my daughter's smile! How nice is this person who held the door open for me?!
The point is that at some point you'll start noticing more and more things throughout your day. By writing them down (as opposed to just thinking it), it gives it depth: "The act of writing down your blessings translates your thoughts into words, as well as organizes them, facilitates integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and puts them in context."
Some other quotes from Robert Emmons' book:
"Gratitude is important not only because it helps us feel good but also because it inspires us to do good."
"Because it is a virtue, gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline.... (But) you will find that each time you make the choice for gratitude, the next choice will be a little easier, a little more automatic, a little freer."
"At the core of these practices is memory. Gratitude is about remembering... A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart."
GRATITUDE IN ACTION
So putting it all together, what I really needed answer to was how exactly to grow in gratitude, and this is where this book helped me the most. So I will now make a list of questions that helps my daughters and I when writing down our 3 things at night... since it is not only about things that made us happy that day.
Overall, it is about developing skills of noticing, appreciating, and communicating. So be very specific - the truth is in the details. Complete sentences, with as much detail as possible. In addition, consider the benefits that you are grateful for and are receiving as "gifts."
12 Questions to help guide your thoughts:
1. Did anyone help you today or do anything for you that cost them their time, energy, or money? What was it, what did it cost them, and how did it make you feel?
2. Think about the people to whom you are grateful, and why. Who deserves your thanks? What have you received or are receiving from them?
3. Surprises create more gratitude, because they are unexpected. What unanticipated or novel surprises have showed up in your life?
4. How have others helped you intentionally today? Did anyone go out of their way to help you on purpose?
5. What can you savor today? Becoming aware that a very pleasant experience (such as vacation) is about to end enhances feelings of gratefulness associated with it. So focus on savoring vs. worrying.
6. What were you dreading that did not happen?
7. Think about people who are helping or have helped those whom you love.
8. Think about the absence of something positive in your life. (If you did not live in your neighborhood, meet a friend, have a sister, how would you feel?)
9. Recall a breakthrough you had in what was once an insurmountable problem, whether this was just last week or 10 years ago.
10. Who are the people who have made a significant difference in your life? In what ways did they shape your life?
11. Think of a time when someone went out of their way to help you. How have you benefited from that person's help?
12. If you are currently going through a difficult situation, or are trying to overcome an obstacle, what are some things that you are learning from this experience? What are some positive things that you wouldn't have discovered any other way?
If for some reason none of these questions speak to you one night, and you possibly have gratitude fatigue, here is a final twist that can still help you gain a positive boost on your day:
What were some things that you achieved today, no matter how small?
While our brains naturally love to focus on things that are going wrong, highlighting to ourselves our little achievements gives us energy to continue down a productive path.
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run." -Rebecca Beris