I want to begin by thanking you for reading this post. In a world blitzed with information, you’re giving your precious time and attention to my words, and I am deeply, genuinely grateful.
Lest you think I’m having a selfless moment, let me confess that I wrote the previous paragraph to see if it would make me feel good. I’ve just been reading studies that say expressing gratitude is one of the quickest, most powerful ways to increase feelings of well-being.
It’s totally working, y’all.
By stopping to give thanks, I redirected my attention from my small, drudging self to you, wherever you are. I feel connected and supported. I’m suddenly aware of community, of the shared interests that have drawn us together. My heart literally feels warm and fuzzy. And I know that this sensation can work wonders, not just in my inner life, but in everything I do.
We’ve just passed America’s yearly Thanksgiving, and we’re moving into the Time of Getting Stuff. I’m told this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” and I do love it. But I’m not ready to let go of giving thanks. I’ve decided that this will be the year I up my gratitude practice. Here are some reasons why, and also some methods you might want to adopt for your ownself.
The Research on Giving Thanks
In the 1990s, when American psychologists began focusing on happiness, gratitude emerged as a kind of magic bullet for the psyche. Study after study showed that focusing on gratitude is one of the most powerful things we can do to feel better, improve our relationships, and achieve more success at work.
If there were an antidepressant that worked like gratitude, we would all be on it.
For example, in one study researchers had a group of people write a few sentences a week about things that made them feel grateful. Another group wrote about things that irritated them. Ten weeks in, the gratitude group was not only happier than the bitch-and-moan group, they were also exercising more, and had fewer visits to the doctor.
In another famous study, participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to someone in their lives. These people’s happiness scores skyrocketed. A month later, they were still feeling much better than usual.
Other studies showed that people who expressed gratitude to loved ones reported that their personal relationships lost conflict and gained intimacy. Employees who expressed gratitude were shown to get more work out of their employees. In short, grateful people feel well, and other people treat them well. A life focused on gratitude just gets weller and weller.
Most of the time.
Exceptions to the Rule
Back in the halcyon days of The Oprah Show, the great Ms. Winfrey often talked about her “gratitude journal,” saying it had added immeasurably to her happiness. In response, millions of viewers like me bought our own journals and started writing out lists of gratitude like we’d developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder. We all tried to jump on the gratitude bandwagon so that we, too, could lead fairytale lives like Oprah’s.
Not so fast, Tinkerbell.
A study of middle aged divorced women who kept gratitude journals (hello, my own demographic!) showed that these women didn’t feel any better than a similar group who kept no journals at all.
I believe it’s because we Oprah fans started writing gratitude journals in order to get stuff, like money or friends. Not quite hearing Oprah’s real message, we wrote out gratitude lists like automatons, trusting them to be magic spells that would magnetize success.
This is like telling someone “I love you” because you’re trying to steal something from them. Expressions of good feeling without actual good feeling are empty. It’s not the sheer verbiage around giving thanks that makes it magical, it’s the felt sensation of gratitude.
The Feeling of Giving Thanks
There’s no emotion quite like genuine gratitude. I spent years trying to live a grateful life. I felt guilty for the privileges I’d been given, and afraid of insulting people if I didn’t thank them. What I didn’t know is that we literally can’t feel negative emotions like guilt or fear at the same time we’re feeling gratitude. They’re mutually exclusive.
Real gratitude comes from awareness of abundance, appreciation of pleasure, and awe. To feel it, find something that pleases you, like a really good cup of coffee, a favorite work of art, or a pet. For a minute, put all your attention on the sensations you feel when you’re enjoying these things. Let the rest of the world fall away.
It’s not just the appreciation you feel, but the release of all other thoughts and feelings, that catalyzes the gratitude’s magical power. It’s easy to simply list five good things in your life—you can do it while feeling distracted or anxious. I think that’s why the gratitude-journal subjects didn’t see an increase in happiness. On the other hand, writing a letter of thanks requires extended focus, which is why people who did this as part of a study had a huge increase in happiness.
A gratitude practice, then, requires not just that we say thanks for all the good stuff in our lives, but that we slow down, focus, and immerse ourselves in the good feelings we associate with the stuff.
Launching a Gratitude Practice
Because I love feeling good, I’m starting a gratitude practice that I promise to sustain for at least a month. If that works out, I may just make it a permanent part of my routine. I call it the “Three to One Gratitude Practice.” The thing I like best about it is that it uses things that don’t make me happy to shift my attention toward things that do make me happy.
Here’s how it works:
- Every time something goes wrong for me, I’m going to write down three things that are going right. I’m going to focus on those things until I connect with genuine gratitude.
- When someone treats me badly, I’m going to notice the next three people who treat me well. I’m going to thank them sincerely for their kindness, even if they’re strangers who think I’m nuts.
- When something in my house breaks, I’m going to dwell on three things that are working. I’m going to go stand by them and shout their praises.
- When parts of my body aren’t working, I’m going to think about three parts that are working. I’m going to thank them personally. Thank you, spleen! I’m so grateful, toenails! You are the best, elbows!
I think you can see where I’m going with this. You don’t have to use the same objects of attention I do—just keep shifting focus away from problematic things and onto good things until genuine gratitude arrives to soften your inner life.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a Pollyanna. I still plan to indulge my peevishness, annoyance, and occasional woe. I’m just going to throw gratitude—the real, true, inner feeling of gratitude—into the mix.
If you decide to launch your own gratitude practice, I give thanks for your company. If you don’t, I give thanks that you’re following your own path. I really do. And once again, I am so grateful that you took the time to read these words.
Y’all, it’s still totally working.