There are few healthy habits with more immediate results than gratitude. This is why English author Joseph Addison declared, "There is not a more pleasing exercise of the mind." Unlike other virtues, he said, gratitude offers "natural gratification" as the "duty is sufficiently rewarded by the performance." Likewise, there are few healthy habits with more reverberating effects. Unlike eating broccoli or meditating, expressing appreciation is discernibly beneficial for both the practitioner and recipient.
Both research and thought leaders agree. A growing body of data shows that people who cultivate an attitude of gratitude experience more energy, happiness and resilience. Furthermore, expressing thanks appears to be a gateway to improved relationships and better mental health by shifting our human negativity bias towards a more optimistic view of life. Eckhart Tolle said that acknowledging the good that we already have in our lives is the foundation for all abundance and Cicero said gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but also the parent of all others.
With the unparalleled immediacy and copious endorsements, it's unfortunate that gratitude shares the limelight with shopping sales and side dishes on its one day a year to shine. Thankfully, gratitude is a choice that can serve the other 364 days of the year if we commit to practicing without the reward of pie.
In the unlikely possibility that the aforementioned testimonials combined with your residual Thanksgiving spirit are not enough to spark immediate gratitude journaling -- a simple and popular way to practice this healthy habit using pen and paper or an app like HappyFeed -- let me offer what makes me thankful for this healthy habit.
Having kept a gratitude journal for the last four years, I no doubt appreciate and savor life's simple pleasures with more ease and regularity. While it's not always easy -- sharing what I'm thankful for when I feel frustrated or anxious can be quite a challenge -- the fact that it takes deliberate and sometimes counterintuitive effort is precisely why it's so useful.
Gratitude is an exercise in getting connected to positive feelings. I never let myself off the hook for expressing thanks for things I ought to be thankful for or that I am of course thankful for, like a roof over my head or friends and family. While I am thankful for those things, the feelings aren't always there and the feeling of gratitude is where the benefits come from.
Instead, I use my practice as an opportunity to feel what's real for me in the moment. Like effective feedback, effective gratitude is targeted, specific and timely. So, for example, today I was thankful for Christmas lights, for their ambient light and symbolism of holiday spirit. I use this same technique of expressing from a place of feeling when writing thank you notes and it helps me more genuinely share what the gesture, gift or person meant to me.
In addition to connecting to feelings, my gratitude journal connects me to positive memories. On days when being thankful feels more difficult, the long list of happy things acts as a reminder of all that is good in my life. Each time I read through it is a chance to relive memories, taste food again, and reunite with a great song, a person or book.
For example, recently I added to my list Stephen Cope's The Great Work of Your Life, a beautifully woven together collection of stories that illustrate the Bhagavad Gita. The journal is a one-stop-shop of positive ideas whenever I need an emotional booster shot and always more effective than turning to fleeting and less healthy comfort foods. As the saying goes, "gratitude consists of being more aware of what you have than what you don't" and reading a journal brings that awareness to life.
Feelings and memories are beneficial enough to keep me practicing, but I've more recently discovered that documenting what I'm thankful for can also serve as a compass for future decisions. What career path would make you light up? What are the characteristics of a mate or home that would make you happiest? How should you spend your vacation? Clues to all these questions emerge from the exercise of expressing gratitude.
After four years of journaling, it is clear that I feel energized and engaged when I am experiencing and learning new things and connecting with others in an honest exchange of ideas and creativity. This is helpful as a guide for big life choices just as it is when choosing between staying home to watch a movie I've already seen or meeting up with a friend to try a new restaurant.
So this year, instead of saving our appreciation for one day of the year, let's be thankful for what gratitude can bring to our lives the other 364 days a year and invite it to be our source for natural gratification, improved relationships and emotional booster shots.