The Transformative Power of Gratitude

04/01/2015 11:16 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
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Over a decade ago, Carolyn's father's died of traumatic injuries suffered in a car accident. Subsequently, her mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. This diagnosis left Carolyn feeling angry, cheated and despairing. Saddled with daily visits to her mother's assisted living facility, Carolyn was forced to witness the gradual disappearance of her mother's once vibrant personality.

Layered on top of this loss, Carolyn was no longer able to allocate time to travel or pursue her own dreams. In the face of these losses it was difficult to keep in mind that she'd had good, loving parents, wonderful and accomplished children, a devoted partner, a job she valued, great health, and the potential to fulfill many of her dreams in the coming years. Instead, Carolyn was fixated on the limitations and the loss of freedom in becoming her mother's caregiver.

Gratitude and Psychology

Three decades ago, Martin Seligman and colleagues launched the field of "Positive Psychology". Here began the scientific study emotions such as gratitude, optimism, forgiveness, happiness, compassion and altruism. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea in the field of psychology since most of the data about human emotion had previously focused on "negative psychology" such as mental illness, trauma, addiction and stress.

What we have learned is that cultivating personal attributes fortifies us during times of adversity and emotional turmoil and leads to greater happiness and resilience. Moreover, of all the attributes one can develop, gratitude is most strongly associated with mental health.

Gratitude is our emotion that relates to our ability to feel and express thankfulness and appreciation. Traditionally, the study of this emotion has been relegated to the fields of theology and philosophy. In 2007, Robert Emmons began researching gratitude through a psychological lens. He found that expressing gratitude improves mental, physical and relational well-being. Being grateful also impacts the overall experience of happiness, and these effects tend to be long-lasting.

Benefits of Gratitude

  • Improved physical, emotional, and social well-being
  • Greater optimism and happiness,
  • Improved feelings of connection in times of loss or crises
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Heightened energy levels
  • Strengthened heart, immune system, and decreased blood pressure
  • Improved emotional and academic intelligence
  • Expanded capacity for forgiveness
  • Decreased stress, anxiety, depression, and headaches
  • Improved self-care and greater likelihood to exercise
  • Heightened spirituality -- ability to see something bigger than ourselves

Cultivating Gratitude

The most common method for cultivating gratitude is by keeping a "gratitude journal" and recording experiences for which one is grateful. The idea is to write about at least three positive experiences on a daily basis. Examples include taking notice of something in nature, an object of beauty, a pleasant conversation with a friend, a good cup of coffee or helping someone with a problem.

Recording these positive experiences boosts levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy, especially when compared to those who recorded or focused on negative events. Our days rarely go according to plan or without unexpected challenges. Some of us can naturally appreciate the sweet moments as they happen throughout the day, while many of us need to cultivate this sense of appreciation.

Research shows that recording experiences for which one is grateful for only two consecutive weeks has lasting positive effects sustained for up to six months. It therefore behooves us to keep a gratitude journal. In fact, the American Greetings Company recently launched a project in which they encourage people to build their gratitude quotient by simply building a ThankList for those aspects of life that bring us joy.

Gratitude Exercises

  • Keep your gratitude journal by your bedside and each night list 3-5 positive experiences from the day. Elaborate on one of these ideas.
  • Make a ritual of 2-5 minute "gratitude meditations." (discussed below)
  • Take a few deep breaths before your gratitude exercises to be grounded, present, mindful.
  • Say thank you often -- particularly to those who serve you!
  • Linger on thoughts of positive moments from the day.
  • Write down a letter of thanks to someone who has made a difference in your life -- give it to them in person if possible.
  • Express gratitude at meals alone or with loved ones.
  • Practice not gossiping, complaining or judging for a day etc.
  • Write down what you appreciate about yourself.
  • Express or show gratitude to your partner.
  • Think about what you are grateful for each morning.

Training the Brain for Positivity and Gratitude

Another powerful way to build positivity is by practicing a "gratitude meditation." This method helps to train the mind for greater positivity, gratitude and happiness. Practice this meditation for a few minutes at a time. The more you do this the more you create new neural pathways and alter existing ones as we train the brain to develop a more grateful outlook. This exercise taps into the brains ability to be malleable or "neuroplastic."

Research shows that our thoughts have the power to shape our brains. The more conscious we are about perceiving an experience as being positive the more this perception will generalize to other parts of the brain. Rick Hanson explains that negative experiences are like "Velcro" and tend to stick in our minds, whereas positive experiences are like "Teflon" and more readily slip away. We must actively work to integrate positive experiences into the brain in order for the positive to "stick" and the beneficial effects to endure. The question remains, "How do we do this?"

Here is an example of a gratitude meditation that need only take two to five minutes to practice. I suggest you practice this once or twice daily to maximize the effects. You will come to enjoy this time and it can be woven into the busiest of schedules.

Gratitude Meditation

  • Get into a comfortable seated position.
  • Relax with eyes closed and feel grounded seated in your chair.
  • Take a few abdominal breaths, relaxing the mind and body.
  • When relaxed we are most open to suggestions.
  • Think about "What am I really grateful for?"
  • Take whatever comes to mind first and build on that thought.
  • Expand upon the story of this positive experience or memory.
  • Savor this experience and allow it to sink into the recesses of mind and body.
  • Intensify this feeling even further by vividly visualizing this memory.
  • Keep that experience in mind longer than usual to deeply embed positivity into the brain.
  • Continue building a repertoire of positive experiences.

Carolyn incorporated the journal writing, built herThankList, and practiced the Gratitude Meditation. They became her daily rituals. She found these practices helped her to really see the many blessings she had in her life. When her mother passed away, Carolyn held steady with her rituals as they helped her in the grieving process.

She developed the capacity for grace. As I define "grace," it is the ability to accept the pain and challenges of life while appreciating its beauty and joy.

Carolyn began to talk about her wish to live her life fully, as never before. "I have a long list of experiences I want to have in the coming years, both with my husband and on my own. I want to savor time and not take anything for granted. I want to make a difference in the lives of others. I realize now that each day is a gift."

Practicing some or all of these strategies has the power to transform one's life in a positive way. As you cultivate your "gratitude quotient" the focus can shift from what is lacking in life to the abundance that already exists. It is a matter of retraining the brain to see all the wonder and possibility that lays before us each day.

So.. what are you grateful for today?