“Gratitude: Nine Tools That Promote Health and Happiness”
By Brian Morris, MD
We are all grateful to a certain extent. We may appreciate having a home, a job, friends and family. However, sometimes we focus on what we wish we had rather than all the blessings that we do have.
This tendency has been made more extreme by the proliferation of magazines and websites dedicated to showing you how others live. Instead of comparing your life to your neighbors, you now have the ability to literally see how your lifestyle compares to that of the rich and famous all over the world. This often leads to dissatisfaction with what you have and unrealistic expectations of how your life should be lived.
What if you took the practice of gratitude and made it a habit to practice it each day? Tall order, huh? What would happen if you became truly grateful for every moment of your life? What if you appreciated opening your eyes in the morning, seeing the sun rise, having that morning cup of coffee or tea, going for a walk, hearing the sound of birds chirping, and seeing your loved ones? No matter how difficult your life may be, everyone has so much for which to be thankful. The secret, though, is to find ways to have this perspective as often as possible.
Gratitude happens when you focus on all the wonderful things that happen each day rather than think about everything that “goes wrong.” With gratitude, you choose to appreciate every moment of your life. If you focus on the beauty in life, you will experience a completely different state of mind.
You could even appreciate aspects of the moments that don’t seem so wonderful on the surface. For example, can you be grateful for having a disagreement with a neighbor? Is that even possible? Well, it takes practice and effort, but you can try to see disagreements as serving some higher purpose. Perhaps it will encourage you to foster better community relations in your neighborhood or to grow as a person and practice understanding another’s perspective. Perhaps it allows you to model for your kids how to accept other people’s differing perspectives.
Another example of a less obvious opportunity to practice gratitude is when you’re standing in line in the grocery store and the person in front of you is struggling to write a check and is taking a long time. You have a decision to make. Do you get impatient and express your frustration to the people around you? Another choice would be to focus on the fact that you’re about to purchase delicious food and that your financial circumstances allow you to do so without stress.
In any moment, you can choose to focus on either the blessings or the curses in life. This is a challenge as it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong in life—the glass being half-empty rather than half-full. If your car looks perfect in every way except for one tiny scratch on the driver’s side door, do you focus on that scratch or on the fact that you have a reliable car that enables you to more easily live your life?
Try to focus your attention on what’s great in life and be grateful for the blessings that come your way every day. The key here is to experience gratitude in all aspects of life whenever possible. It shifts your perspective from one of frustration and unhappiness to harmony, acceptance, and happiness.
One great life lesson is that gratitude is the key to happiness.
When you focus mainly on problems, you experience stress which wears on your body, mind, and spirit. On the other hand, when you focus on all the blessings in life, you experience happiness and fulfillment.
Gratitude is often discussed as a virtue, something good for your soul. It turns out that gratitude is also good for your physical and emotional health. One of my favorite studies was the University of California Davis Medical Center study where patients were instructed to write down the five best things that happened to them each day, while another group was instructed to write down the five worst things, and a third group had to write down any five things that happened that day. After twelve weeks, the researchers concluded that the first group (the gratitude group) was happier, had fewer health complaints, and even slept better than the other two groups. Fascinating, right? Focusing on the positive things that happen to you is good for your health.
That’s not to say that you should simply be a Pollyanna and ignore problems that need to be addressed. You need to deal with problems, but they shouldn’t be your main focus. If you have a tendency to focus on the negative in life, you may need to force yourself to focus on the positive. Gratitude works because it encourages happiness in life and is the secret sauce to wellness.
What is happiness? Happiness is the state of mind that results from experiencing life with appreciation and gratitude. Happiness is simply a state of mind just as envy, jealously, frustration, or anger are states of mind. Happiness is a state of mind that anyone can attain if the proper practices of gratitude are followed.
On the other hand, unhappiness is the result of struggling with life and finding anger and frustration with each moment. Unhappiness arises when you see challenges as struggles rather than what they truly are: opportunities for growth. Rather than seeing life as a struggle, try to see life as the grand experience that it is and appreciate all the blessings that come your way.
When you think about this, it makes sense. You’re happy when you appreciate what’s happening in your life. When you resist your life, you will tend to be unhappy. Take a moment and remember to practice gratitude every day. Make gratitude a part of your life and the lives that you touch. Every moment is an opportunity to be grateful for what is going right. It is up to each person to decide whether or not to seize the opportunity to be grateful and experience happiness.
There are specific tools and strategies that can help to create an attitude of gratitude. The following nine tools are particularly effective in promoting gratitude and happiness within yourself and those that you encounter. Read through these practices and see which ones work for you.
- Gratitude Journal
A gratitude journal is a journal where you write down what you appreciate about your life. You can journal in your smart phone, tablet or computer. Alternatively, you can use an old-fashioned paper journal. One of the best ways to use a gratitude journal is to make an entry each morning upon arising. Each morning, list three things for which you’re grateful, whether it’s a person, place, or thing. It could be something recent, in the past or something happening right now. Try to make sure that at least one of your items is new to your gratitude journal. It is important to list at least one new item a day as it forces you to continue to find new things to appreciate.
You could even try to find ways to appreciate things that didn’t go your way. For example, let’s say your favorite football team lost a big game on Sunday. What could you find to appreciate about the loss? Perhaps the loss might inspire your team to focus and play harder in the playoffs or perhaps it may help secure a better draft pick in the next college player draft. Use your gratitude journal on a daily basis.
- Gratitude Prayer
Most major religions or spiritual practices teach the power of prayer. Many people use prayer to ask for something, whether for forgiveness or for the speedy recovery of a friend having surgery. However, some prayers are about gratitude. Think about the prayers that are typically recited at religious ceremonies, before dinner or during special events. Most of those prayers are about gratitude. Yes, good old gratitude; being thankful for something.
It can be a prayer of thankfulness for having enough food, good health or for all sorts of other things. I would venture to say that most traditional prayers are, at their core, prayers of gratitude or thankfulness. That’s one of the core benefits of a healthy spiritual practice. It’s an organized way to practice gratitude. Prayer can be private within your heart and mind. Prayer could also be public in the setting of organized religion or some other community group. The key here is that prayer can be a profound, sometimes spiritual way to express thankfulness, appreciation, and gratitude whether it’s private or public. Thus, the second tool for gratitude is to recite a prayer of thankfulness.
- Gratitude Walk
When walking and gratitude are combined together, you get the gratitude walk. How does this work? Go for a walk and use a step counter to count your steps just as I discussed in habit 16. However, on a gratitude walk, find something to appreciate every thousand steps that you take, which is about every half a mile. You can use a fitness tracker to track your steps, or you can use one of the many smartphone step tracking apps.
As you walk, look for things to appreciate. For example, I tend to go for walks along the hills and mountains near my house so I see so many beautiful parts of nature from plants to trees to birds to the ocean in the distance. There is so much beauty to appreciate in such a bucolic setting, but you can find something to appreciate no matter where you are.
As you walk, make it a habit to find something to appreciate every 1,000 steps (or about every half mile). This is a great daily exercise and daily meditative process. Think about how a walk rooted in appreciation helps to center your mind and heart in feelings of gratitude that promote good health.
After you’ve done a few gratitude walks, I recommend planning your walks to visit places to actually give thanks to people. Perhaps you can take a walk to your grocery store, dry cleaner, coffee shop, or pharmacy and thank the people that work there. You will be amazed at how much this means to people.
Can you imagine how good it feels to have someone walk into your store simply to thank you? In addition, you will be amazed at how good this feels for you. Expressing your appreciation will improve the quality of your day and fill your heart with feelings of joy and happiness. If you don’t live close enough to walk to these stores, then consider a “gratitude drive” where you can drive to these places. Of course, a drive won’t give you the same health benefits as a walk, but the act of expressing your gratitude will still be beneficial.
- Gratitude Meditation
As we’ve discussed before, meditation is a practice where you focus your attention on a word, phrase, or movement and give your conscious mind a short vacation. You focus on one thing—it could be your breath, a prayer, a mantra, or even just your hands. The key to meditation is to spend a period of time focused on something and, when your mind begins to wonder to thoughts about the past or future, you let those thoughts go and bring your attention back to the present moment.
There are many studies now showing that meditation can help in so many different ways from improved sleep to reduced stress to improved blood pressure control. Given all the impressive health benefits of meditation, what would happen if you combined the power of meditation with gratitude? The key to meditation is to maintain your attention for a sustained period of time. Let’s say that you decide that each day you would spend five minutes meditating on something for which you are grateful, perhaps for having two children. Find a quiet place to sit down and do your meditation and focus on being grateful for your children. Your attention and your concentration will stay on a mental image of your children and all the many reasons why you’re grateful that they’re a part of your life. When other thoughts begin to intrude into your meditation, you passively release those thoughts and return to being grateful for your children. Tomorrow you might pick someone or something else to use in your gratitude meditation. You might pick your car or your home or having enough food to eat for breakfast. The focus of your gratitude mediation can vary from day to day each day. However, be sure to find time for this on a regular basis. The gratitude meditation is a powerful and meaningful way to combine two useful tools into one extraordinarily powerful daily practice.
- Gratitude Letter To Yourself
This is similar to a gratitude journal, but instead of keeping a journal, the idea is to sit down and write a good old-fashioned letter to your past self. Each week, write a letter to yourself at some time in the past—at seven years old or thirty years old or whatever age you like—and express some gratitude in the letter. Looks back at those days from the past and find things for which to be thankful. What could you write? Try to reflect back on how the choices you made at that age have helped you in life or taught you a lesson that has been useful to you. You can also give yourself some wisdom or some sage advice that you have learned over the years. The focus of these letters should be on appreciating things that happened to you and things that you did for others.
It’s also important to give some comfort and compassion to yourself for the times when you might have needed it. Let’s say that you struck out in a big baseball game when you were 10 years old. Let’s say that you didn’t have a date to the senior prom back in high school. We all can recall moments in our lives when we struggled with something or had a bad experience. Write a letter to help yourself get through that tough time and try to find some appreciation for what happened. What would you write in your gratitude letters? What wisdom would you impart to yourself during the past? The gratitude letter can be extremely powerful as it expands your awareness of your own struggles. It allows you the opportunity to see yourself from a new perspective and enrich your heart with self-compassion and self-love.
- Gratitude Dinner
Dining together as a family can be a wonderful way to express gratitude. This is an activity I encourage families to practice every night if possible. Some families recite a religious or spiritual prayer as part of the practice. Alternatively, some families simply go around the table and have each person say one thing they appreciate about the meal. The key is to encourage each family member to focus on appreciating life and the blessings of the meal.
- Gratitude Social Media Post
How can you use social media platforms to encourage appreciation? You can write a gratitude social media post. This can be done by simply posting a thank you message. Those who want to be creative can use audio or video to craft their post. The key is to express public gratitude for something, someone, or some organization.
Recently I used Twitter to show my appreciation for a singer whose music I’ve enjoyed for decades. I sent out a tweet of gratitude to the singer expressing how much I appreciate the great work that she has created. Soon after I shared that tweet, I received a reply from the singer thanking me for my words of gratitude. It was clear from her reply that my tweet had meant a lot to her. At the time, I realized that this exchange of tweets also meant a lot to me, because it encouraged a feeling of appreciation in my heart. The exchange helped to make my day and I suspect it may have made her day a little brighter as well.
Think of ways that you can use social media to give thanks. Pick your favorite social media platform and make it a regular practice to send a message of thanks to people you appreciate. Keep it sweet and keep it simple. Be honest and be specific about why you’re thankful and how this person has enriched your life. Social media isn’t always used for enriching purposes, but make this a consistent practice for you. You will be surprised and amazed at how much these sorts of messages mean to others. You will also be amazed how much it means to you.
- Gratitude Letter
This may be my favorite gratitude exercise. For this exercise, think of someone to whom you want to give thanks. It can be someone from your current life or someone from your past. A gratitude letter can be especially meaningful when you reach out to someone who may not be aware of the impact they had on you. It could be a teacher from elementary school or a friend from years ago or perhaps someone who helped you with something. It can be someone who you see all the time, like a waiter at your favorite restaurant or your dentist. Write that person a note—either an email or, better yet, a good old-fashioned letter. Keep it brief, but let them know that you appreciate them and explain why you’re thankful for whatever role they played in your life. Occasionally I will receive a gratitude letter from a patient or family member of a patient. It always means a lot to me. Make writing a gratitude note a regular practice.
- Random Acts of Kindness
One of the best ways to promote gratitude and happiness within yourself and within your family is to regularly perform random acts of kindness. Many religions teach about compassion and kindness to others and there’s a reason for that. In addition to helping others, kindness promotes a feeling of gratitude and appreciation within yourself. Make it a practice to show kindness to others as often as possible. You can show kindness in a smile or a pleasant comment. You can show kindness in doing a favor for someone in need. You can also show kindness to a stranger, which is a particularly powerful source of gratitude. As discussed in habit 36, you can purchase a cup of coffee or tea for the person behind you in line at your local coffee shop. Random acts of kindness promote your own happiness and also help to spread wellness to others.
These nine gratitude practices can help increase your feelings of appreciation. If you are able to incorporate some of these ideas into your life on a consistent basis, you will be surprised at how much more happiness you feel and spread to others. Give one or more of these gratitude tools a try and see what works for you. Find ways to integrate gratitude practices into your daily life. Find a time and a place where you will practice some form of gratitude every day. Finding ways to incorporate these tools into your everyday life can be a life changing practice. Every moment is an opportunity to appreciate all the wonderful parts of life. It is up to you to decide whether or not to seize that opportunity.