How to cultivate genuine gratitude
Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life have shared their wisdom about the virtues of gratitude. Religions have long revered gratitude as a spiritual act and it seems to be one of the most universally accepted acts of kindness. Also described as thankfulness and appreciation, expressions of gratitude include a bow and a handshake, a kiss, a gift and prayer. Yet gratitude is something more than an outward expression; it is much deeper and has far-reaching repercussions.
All around us are examples of the impact gratitude can have. Take for example, “voluntourism” whereby one gives back to the community while taking a holiday. This is now one of the fastest growth areas in our global travel industry. Voluntourism is an example of gratitude that leads to kindness towards others. The more grateful you are for what you have, the more capable you are of kindness to others.
In terms of health, the results are also in. When you practise giving attention to what you love and appreciate, emotions occur that benefit your whole body. Experiencing genuine gratitude can help manage stress, calm your nervous system, improve your immune function and even prolong your life. The practice of appreciation is also said to speed up recovery from illness and boost your attitude to life.
The science of gratitude
Dr Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, is dedicated to creating scientific data on the nature of gratitude and its potential consequences for human health. Emmons specialises in the psychology of gratitude and how this creates wellbeing. He is the author of The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford Press) and How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton-Mifflin).
A study conducted by Emmons and his colleague Michael McCullough in 2003 discovered that grateful people experience a greater sense of vitality, connection to others, higher levels of satisfaction, optimism and lower levels of stress and depression. They found that people who experience gratitude more frequently tend to be happier, more helpful and forgiving and less depressed than their less grateful counterparts.
“Gratitude drives a variety of beneficial changes inside our minds and bodies,” reports Emmons. “Gratitude works because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions (like joy, contentment and hope) that have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system.” He says gratefulness also buffers a person from envy, resentment and regret, emotions that are physically and psychologically harmful.
“By focusing on the benevolence of others, gratitude also helps us feel more connected and nourished by a supportive network of relationships. A grateful response to life keeps memories of cherished relationships and the kindnesses of others ‘psychologically alive’ longer and therefore we are less likely to adapt to these goodnesses or take them for granted.”
A gratitude diary
It is one thing to know that gratitude is good for you, but how do you go about cultivating gratitude during the tougher times? You could go for a walk and recall all the “good” things that have happened to you lately and think about all the positive things that are happening in your life. This process, though, is not always easy, particularly in the really difficult times.
Australian naturopath Sally Mathrick says she uses a “gratitude diary” for depressed or chronically ill clients, with great results. She says that forcing her clients’ attention on what they feel grateful for helps to halt catastrophic thinking, lifts them into a better frame of mind and helps move their motivation towards healing.
“I ask them to write down 3–5 things they feel really grateful for every day; or, if they are really depressed, things they think they could feel grateful for. This obliges them to look for and think about the positive things in their daily life. Simple things like patting a cat, drinking a glass of water or a hearing a song on the radio can be included in the diary.”
Thankful or elated?
The truth is we generally feel thankful when something occurs that serves us or our family. Since our perceptions are so closely linked to our value systems, we will label a person or event as “good”, “right” or “positive” when it goes our way and fits our pre-existing values.
“Many people confuse gratitude with elation,” agrees Dr John Demartini, author of Count your Blessings. “They think that when they’re elated about some event and say, ‘Oh, I’m so thankful for that!’ they are being grateful. But true gratitude actually has little to do with those temporary moments of happiness or elation. True gratitude is a quiet state of poise and inner calm where you sense the divine order and wouldn’t want anything to change.”
According to Demartini, this is true even when it comes to challenging people and events in our lives. “True gratitude is when you see the perfect equilibrium or divine order in any area of your life,” confirms Demartini. “In Spanish it is called gracias. In French it is called mercy. But in English it is simply called divine grace.”
Demartini says there are two very different types of thanksgiving. The first type is often false, arising when you are dissatisfied with life. It is represented by, “Oh God/universe/world, this is all messed up. Please fix it!” In this instance, your gratitude is contingent on getting what you want. The second type, according to Demartini, is more genuine. It arises when you are truly thankful for what has already been given. Within this type you recognise the order and perfection of what is. As a result, you receive more gifts. To those who “have” (gratitude), more is given. To those who “have not” (ingratitude) more is taken away. Having gifts taken away as a result of ingratitude helps us wake up to the importance of being grateful.
It’s often the people, events and things that challenge us in life that are our greatest gifts and what we end up being most thankful for. There are countless stories of people who have suffered an enormous challenge that actually became the turning point in their lives. Interviews with talented sportspeople, actors and musicians often reveal they suffered childhood difficulties or a physical disability that, in fact, became the catalyst for their gifts today. What about that “tough” ex-boss who, in retrospect, provided you with an incredible training ground for your career today?
“Those who count their blessings, who are grateful, have more blessings and fulfillment in life than those who do not,” says Demartini. “This is a simple principle. Yet it has the power to change your life. Gratitude is the key to growth and fulfillment.”
Learning to be happy
Tim Sharp, founder of The Happiness Institute in Australia, an organisation that runs courses facilitated by coaching psychologists, agrees that optimistic thinking and healthy, energised behaviour can be learned. He says happiness is not just about feeling good — it’s also about doing good. “Happy people are more altruistic and also more grateful for what they have. They don’t just experience appreciation but they actively and overtly express it. The practice of gratitude is undoubtedly linked to happiness and also to health and wellbeing.” Many agree that the more we count our blessings, the greater blessings we receive. Where our attention flows is where the energy goes. Take financial wealth as an example. The more grateful you are for money (demonstrated by regular saving, paying bills and acting integrally around money), the more you will receive. The universe will “see” that you can handle money and treat money respectfully, then it will give you more.
“We are built on universal principles and the universe behaves like us on a grander scale,” says Demartini. “If you were to give someone a gift and they just looked at it and then tossed it aside without thanks, would you be inclined to give them another? Of course not, and the universe responds just as you do. The universe bestows its gifts where they are most appreciated. If you’re not grateful for what you’ve been given, why would the universe want to give you more?”
Despite what the man tells us on the six o’clock news, there’s a lot to be grateful for in life. However, it’s a mistake to assume that living in a permanent state of gratitude is the one component required for an easy and fulfilled life. Each of us is unique. There is not one formula or medication that suits everyone. Nonetheless, religions, modern scientists, researchers and philosophers all seem to be of the same mind: when it comes to gratitude, there’s a lot to be thankful about.
Opportunities for gratitude
Forget years of therapy and workshops. According to some, it takes just hours, if not minutes or even seconds, to transform our perceptions of self, others and events into a state of appreciation. It is a matter of looking for and finding the good in every situation. Here are some examples:
Benefits of depression
- A time to reflect and get real
- An opportunity to re-evaluate your life, relationships and career choice
- A chance to let others help and nurture you
Benefits of stress
- A good excuse for a massage
- An opportunity to learn to listen to your body
- Finally, a reason to give up coffee
Benefits of getting old
- You’re wiser and smarter (we hope)
- A chance to pass down knowledge to the young
- Less pressure on your external virtues, more attention on your inner richness
- An opportunity to spend time with grandchildren (without all the sleepless nights)
Benefits of fatigue
- A chance to rest, watch movies and read books
- An occasion to explore restorative practices such as yoga or a spa treatment
Gratitude in your body
When you both think and feel appreciative about something or someone, the autonomic nervous system (the calming branch of the nervous system) is activated. The autonomic nervous system acts as a control system regulating the heart rate, digestion, respiration rate and even sexuality.
Gratitude affects the frontal region of the brain that raises serotonin and dopamine levels, some of the feel-good chemicals.
The Nun Study by David Snowdon, professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kentucky Medical School, links optimism with gratitude. He found, “The more positive emotions expressed in the life stories of thee nuns (contentment, gratitude/thankfulness, happiness, hope and love), the more likely they were to still be alive six decades later.”
In another study by psychologist Glenn Affleck at the University of Connecticut, it was discovered that gratitude is good for the heart. His research showed that cardiac patients who perceived the benefits and gains from their initial heart attack (including greater appreciation of life) experienced a reduced risk of a another attack compared with those who blamed their heart attack on others.
Judy Chapman is the author of three books on spas and wellbeing. She is the former Editor-in-chief of Spa Asia magazine.