Can gratitude change your attitude?

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” — Roman philosopher, Cicero

In a hedonistic society, happiness is often equated with looking after yourself and meeting your own needs and wants, but there’s an old saying: If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness. When you’re grateful, more grace flows in your life, and where there is grace, happiness is more at home.
Are grateful people happier?

Long since this old saying came about, the connection between gratitude and happiness has become a well-researched topic. While many emotions and personality traits are important to wellbeing, there’s evidence that gratitude may be uniquely important. Much of the research into gratitude has focused on the consequences of being a more or less grateful person. Studies done at the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, US, have shown the correlation between gratitude and increased wellbeing for not only the individual who’s experiencing gratitude but all people involved.

A longitudinal study showed that people who were more grateful coped better with a major life change. Specifically, it showed that three months after the study, people who were more grateful before the change were less stressed, less depressed and more satisfied with their relationships.

Can the ability to focus on any authentic reason to feel grateful rather than on the myriad things that might be going wrong in your life and in the world really bring you many benefits in terms of your health, your emotional state and your marriage? According to recent research, yes, seeing the cup half full can make a huge difference.

The question is, can people want what they have, be grateful for it and learn to look on the bright side? Or have we become too entrenched in believing that having our needs and wants met is where happiness lies? The good news is experts believe that, while about 50 per cent of such temperament is genetic, the rest comes from experience, so there’s plenty of opportunity for change. One of the ways to instill that change is to inculcate a sense of gratitude — gratitude for what you have and for what others give you.

Dr Jeffrey Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University, New York, has done research into the nature and effects of gratitude. According to Dr Froh, “One of the best cures for materialism is to make somebody grateful for what they have.”

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude

How do you become grateful? How can you foster a sense of gratitude? After all, with all the violence, pollution and crazy things being done in the world, it wouldn’t be difficult to cultivate an attitude of disappointment and cynicism. The downside to cultivating an attitude of doom and gloom, though, is that whatever you cultivate — that’s what you’re going to get. If you make a habit of seeing the world as a place that’s mean and frustrated, you’re going to get a world that’s more mean and frustrating. On the other hand, if you can find any authentic reason to be grateful, to notice and acknowledge anything that’s going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you will be better off.

As with anything, acquiring or cultivating a certain attitude may require some practice and awareness, and it’s not just a case of “fake it till you make it”. Gratitude works when you’re truly grateful for something real in your life. Pretending to be grateful for things just because you think you should be isn’t going to help, but regularly getting in touch with what you’re honestly grateful for can have a huge impact on your life.

The gratitude difference

It sounds simplistic, but simply thinking about what you’re grateful for can make a difference because:

  • It reminds you of the positive things in your life.
  • It puts a spin on things that look bad. For instance, if you’re having problems at work you can at least be grateful that you have work or that you have challenges which you can learn and grow from.
  • It reminds you of what’s important. It’s hard to complain about the little things when you give thanks that your children are alive and healthy, and it’s hard to be too stressed out over paying bills when you’re grateful to have a roof over your head.

Enhance your gratitude

What you focus on in your life grows, so when you look for things to be grateful for you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Write and deliver a letter or a card to someone you feel grateful to in your life. While there’s also benefit to be had in expressing your gratitude to someone through a phone call, email, Facebook message or text, delivering your thanks in person can be particularly impactful. People like being appreciated for who they are and what they do. It costs you little but makes someone else happy.

Start a gratitude journal. Some people do this on their Facebook page or on an iPod app. Writing in it on a daily basis, either first thing in the morning or just before you go to bed, works best. List all the people, situations or things for which you feel grateful. Be specific. Listing “my friends, my school, my dog” day after day can induce “gratitude fatigue”. To keep it fresh, be as descriptive as you can. For example, “my friend giving me a ride to the station when I was late for college” or “my partner giving me a huge hug before they left for work”. In research conducted by scientist Robert A Emmons at UC Davis, a group of chronically ill adults were instructed to keep a gratitude journal every night. In contrast with the control group, who didn’t keep a journal, the participants felt happier about their lives in general, more optimistic about the future and more connected with others.

Regularly tell your spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them, starting today.

Think about something good that has happened to you recently.

Express your gratitude in the conversations you have. Instead of bonding with friends over gripes and annoyances, share what you feel grateful for. This also has a knock-on effect: you may even notice how it uplifts and inspires them to naturally share with you what they’re grateful for.

Imagine what your life would be like without something in it, eg without your spouse, child or friend. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, researchers found that when college students wrote essays in which they were asked to mentally subtract a positive event from their lives, they were subsequently more grateful for it than students who didn’t do the same.

Remember, things could easily be worse than what they are. Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

Long-term gratitude builders

Some methods of inculcating gratitude take a little longer but give them a go — they really are worth the effort and promise lasting effects.

Cultivate the essence of spirituality in your life. While spirituality and gratitude are certainly not dependent on each other, studies have found that spirituality is capable of enhancing a person’s ability to be grateful. According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Founder of the Art of Living Foundation, grumbling is an indication of lack of awareness, while gratitude indicates awareness. One way to cultivate the essence of spirituality is through regularly doing practices that increase your awareness and positively impact on your mind. Such practices may include yoga, tai chi, breathing techniques and meditation. With regular (ie daily) practice you’ll naturally begin to see the world in a more positive light, to focus on what’s uplifting and inspiring and feel grateful for what you have.

Increase your prana. When your prana (life-force energy) is low, it’s easy to get stuck in complaining, grumbling and feeling negative about life and the people around you. Conversely, when your prana’s high, you’re more inclined to feel positive, joyful, enthusiastic and grateful. Similarly, whenever you get stuck in grumbling, it lowers your prana, as well as that of the people listening to your grumbling, but whenever you feel grateful it increases not only your prana but that of those around you.

Keep choosing gratitude over sadness. In those moments when you feel grateful you cannot also feel sad. Gratitude and grief or sadness manifest as sensations in the same part of your body. Whenever you experience grief, your throat chokes. Similarly, when you feel grateful, something happens in your throat — there’s a sensation of contraction. Because the two cannot coexist, whenever you feel grateful the emotion of grief subsides and vice versa, so choosing to become aware of what you’re grateful for when you’re feeling down can take you out of sadness and increase your gratitude quota.


Meggan Brummer teaches yoga and meditation, runs corporate workshops on stress management, work/life balance and nutrition, and presents cooking workshops and lectures at the NSW Writers Centre. W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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