We often think of gratitude as nothing more than a mark of politeness; something we do for the benefit of others.
Your nearest and dearest gives you the latest CD of a band you haven’t listened to in years, or an item of clothing so vile that you wouldn’t use it as a rag to wash the car, and your default response will probably be to fake gratitude with a forced smile combined with some thinly disguised words of appreciation. “Oh thanks…that’s just what I wanted”.
But is that really the be all and end all of gratitude – to shield people from the upset of knowing they’ve given you a dodgy birthday or Christmas present?
Well in fact research shows that showing gratitude offers far more – a route to greater happiness and contentment in life.
In his book ‘59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot’, Professor of psychology Richard Wiseman quotes some compelling research to back up the claim.
In a study conducted by psychologists at the University of California in 2003, a group of volunteers kept weekly ‘gratitude journals’ in which they recorded five positive events that had occurred throughout the preceding week. Instructed to keep a record of anything for which they were grateful or thankful, large or small, the volunteers recorded simple everyday pleasures such as watching a beautiful sunset or appreciating the generosity of friends.
How did these gratitude observing volunteers fair? Well, in comparison to two other control groups (one group instructed to keep a weekly written record of annoyances, the other a list of mundane daily activities) the gratitude group not only exuded significantly higher levels of happiness at the study’s end, but had also developed a more optimistic outlook, were physically healthier and were even inclined to exercise more than the other two groups.
Not a bad result for simply taking the time to appreciate a beautiful sunset is it?
And that’s not a one-off finding. One of the most influential positive psychologists of the past few decades, Martin Seligman, reported the prolonged beneficial effects of gratitude journaling in 2005. Seligman found that individuals who wrote down three positive experiences per day for just one week showed elevated optimism and happiness levels even six months later.
Making a short-term conscious daily effort to appreciate the good in life can therefore, have a seriously disproportionate long-term positive effect.
Yet another psychologist who’s devoted considerable time to happiness research, Sonja Lyubomirsky, elaborates on the positive effects of gratitude in her book ‘The How of Happiness: The practical guide to getting the life you want’.
Amongst its many well-being enhancing effects, Lyubomirsky reports that regular appreciation of the good things in one’s life promotes greater resilience to stress, faster recovery from illness, less desire (which, if you ask any Buddhist is the root of all suffering), greater contentment, higher levels of self-esteem, reduced susceptibility to negative emotions such as anger, guilt and jealousy; and to top it off…better, happier relationships.
But why does making the effort to notice the good things in your life have such a profoundly positive effect? After all, it seems like such a clichéd piece of advice – the sort of thing you’d tell a kid to do in annoyance to stop him / her from whining.
Well, clichéd though it may sound it works simply because we quickly adapt to our surroundings; we get used to what we see, hear, feel, and experience every day. We’re hardwired to take things for granted.
In fact, the ability to adapt to our surroundings is one of our key coping strategies in life; it’s the reason things never seem to turn out as bad as you imagined they would. You lose your job, your house, a leg, a loved one, and at the time it feels like your world is set to implode. Yet in an average of three months according to psychologists, you’ll have adapted to your new circumstances and your happiness levels will have returned to their pre-disaster levels.
But whilst such adaptation is often a real blessing, it can also be a curse; because whilst it helps us to get over traumatic events, it also leaves us blind to all the good in your life; we simply fail to recognise or appreciate all those constant positives we experience day-in-day-out, that if we didn’t forget them, would go a long way to make us happier.
Psychologists call this miraculous ability to take all the positives in our lives for granted ‘hedonistic habituation’; and as Professor Wiseman points out in ‘59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot’ it’s the reason lottery winners are no more or less happier than the rest of us. Their bulging bank balances and all the associated perks – a life of leisure, banana coloured Lamborghini’s, heated swimming pools outside their 10 bedroom mansions, silk underwear – it all rapidly becomes so routine that it loses its allure (and any associated sense of pleasure or source of happiness).
Take Just 5 Minutes to Reflect
So if hedonistic habituation is the disease, showing gratitude seems to be the cure; and a simple one at that.
To reap the rewards there’s no need to spend every waking moment of your life in some gratitude seeking bubble; a contrived state of positivity where you force yourself to see the good in anything and everything that happens to you. Something I’ve tried to do that myself by the way, and I’ll save you the effort by telling you it doesn’t work anyway; it’s just draining.
All you have to do in practice is spend maybe five minutes a day, either morning, noon or night, riffling through your last 24 hours’ worth of memories looking for a handful of positive experiences. Just forcing yourself to recall 3 – 5 positive experiences per day and taking the time to jot each of them down in a sentence or two should be enough, according to research, to tangibly improve your mood, your levels of optimism and your physical well-being.
They don’t have to be significant events, just simple specific everyday joys – anything that made you smile, feel appreciation or good about at the time.
Just start to appreciate those small things again and life, psychologists assure, will feel much rosier.