5 Ways to Use Gratitude to Improve Your Attitude (And Health)

05/06/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016
Fuse via Getty Images

In our fast-paced, competitive culture, we tend to notice and worry about what's lacking in our lives. Because of our drive to succeed, we focus on what stands in our way. We tune in to the things we don't have -- material items, body type, status, money, perfect relationships. But when we view our world from this perspective, we set ourselves up to measure our worth by our deficits rather than our successes.

Feelings of insufficiency, imperfection and envy are known barriers to happiness. When we harbor these feelings, we limit our capacity for feeling happy and fulfilled.

Although we often strive to find happiness and success by working toward that which we covet, research shows that this approach may be holding us back. It's actually the practice of noticing and appreciating what we already have that will bring more happiness.

Feeling gratitude for what's going well in life has a remarkable impact on how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. Indeed, positive psychology research demonstrates that gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness and fulfillment.

Gratitude has powerful effects on health and well-being

Research shows that gratitude has powerful effects on physical health, social relationships, and self-worth. Experiencing gratitude also builds the mental and physical resilience needed to overcome life's stresses and challenges.

Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the effects of gratitude, has conducted decades of research showing that gratitude improves both physical and psychological well-being. Emmons has studied people of all ages to demonstrate the wide-reaching impact of gratitude on the human experience -- on our personal satisfaction, social connectedness and physical health.

Emmons has found that people who regularly practice gratitude report higher levels of positive emotions, including more joy, pleasure, happiness, and optimism. These people also tend to have stronger social relationships and fewer feelings of isolation and loneliness, perhaps resulting from the fact that they are shown to be more generous, compassionate, and forgiving. New research also shows that gratitude can reduce the frequency or duration of episodes of depression.

In addition to its mental and social benefits, the practice of gratitude has been shown to improve physical health. Research reveals that highly gracious people have stronger immune systems, better sleep, and fewer reports of pain and aches. These people are also more likely to exercise regularly, take better care of their health, and have lower blood pressure. (And these results are even consistent among a study of people with a neuromuscular disease!)

If you're looking to relate gratitude to your professional life, the research shows that feelings of gratitude will enhance your fulfillment here as well. Highly gracious people report more feelings of alertness, determination, and enthusiasm, and are better at making progress toward achieving goals.

The research in this field clearly shows that cultivating feelings of gratitude is a simple way to make big changes in our personal happiness and satisfaction.

When you catch yourself focusing on the negative or dwelling on a lack of perfection, switch gears and try to recognize and appreciate what's good around you.

Here are five simple tricks to practice gratitude and remind yourself of the good in life:

1. Keep a gratitude journal

Keeping a journal of things that go well is proven to improve happiness and health. Emmons and McCullough conducted a study in which participants were asked to write a few sentences each week for 10 weeks -- one group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that week, one group about things that displeased or irritated them, and one group about events that had happened (with no clear direction to focus on the positive or negative).

The study found that those who focused on their gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives overall. And, notably, the participants who wrote about gratitude demonstrated better physical health than their counterparts who wrote about negative or neutral events.

Start a gratitude journal by listing three to five things that went well or that you're grateful for -- every week, every day, or even multiple times a day for maximum effect.

2. Write thank you notes

Boost your happiness by writing a letter or email to someone in your life for whom you're grateful. This will not only make you happier, but will also nurture your relationship with the person you're writing to. Make a plan to write a different thank you note every month (or every week if you want to reap more benefits!).

This is also a great strategy to use in the workplace -- acknowledging the work that others do will increase and sustain their motivation to continue doing great work. Also, remember to write yourself a thank you note every now and then!

3. Give mental thank yous

Sometimes you may have an opportunity to feel grateful for someone or something but don't have a chance to express it out loud. Practice saying mental "Thank You!"s to people (or things) you aren't able acknowledge in other ways -- like the driver who let you in, or the super delicious dinner you made yourself. This will help you appreciate and reap the benefits of positive experiences that might otherwise go unnoticed.

4. Practice meditation or prayer

Before scientists began studying gratitude in the 20th century, many religious leaders and philosophers expounded on the virtue of practicing gratitude through prayer or meditation. Use mindfulness meditation to focus on what you're grateful for in the present moment -- it could be the warmth of the sun, a pleasant smell, or a feeling of peace and calm. If it suits you, you can also use prayer to acknowledge and cultivate gratitude.

5. Start a gratitude jar to pay it forward

You can use your own gratitude to grow more around you! Try keeping a jar of spare change, or putting a dollar in a jar each day when you write in your gratitude journal. Then, when the jar is full, use the money to "pay it forward" -- buy flowers for a deserving person, order lunch for the office, or purchase a few $5 Starbucks gift cards and leave them around a university library during finals week. Research shows that the people who receive your good deeds will be more likely to follow suit with their own good deeds too.

A version of this post originally appeared on Fulfillment Daily.