The Practice of Gratitude
In the field of Positive Psychology, gratitude has been defined as “a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone” (Emmons & McCullough, 2004). Research into the impact of intentional gratitude practices suggest that these can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing (eg Bohlmeier et al, 2021).
There are several simple ways you could begin to cultivate a sense gratitude in your life. One popular and effective practice is to keep a gratitude journal. This does not have to be an onerous task; even writing down three things that you are grateful each day can lead to a higher level of happiness and overall wellbeing (Lai & O'Carroll, 2017). Writing a letter of gratitude to someone you appreciate, such as a friend, a family member, or a colleague or mentor, can increase feelings of happiness and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (Toepfer et al., 2012). You don't need to send the letter if you don't want to, but just allow yourself to feel appreciation for that person.
Other ideas for cultivating gratitude include meditation, walks and rituals. Gratitude meditation involves intentionally focusing your attention on the things you are grateful for, such as your health, you relationships or your accomplishments; gratitude walks involve going for a walk, perhaps in the countryside, and focusing on your gratitude for the beauty of your surroundings or the peace you feel in the solitude; gratitude rituals include practices such as saying grace before meals, keeping a gratitude rock in your pocket, or starting each day with a gratitude mantra.
Challenges to Practising Gratitude
Whilst gratitude can be a powerful tool for improving mental health and wellbeing, it can be a challenge to be grateful when times are difficult. It can be easy then to focus on what is going wrong and lose sight of the things you have to be grateful for. During life's challenges, it is usually helpful to acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to feel and process them. It is ok to feel sad, angry, or frustrated. Gratitude does not mean denying or minimising our feelings. Rather, it means finding things to be grateful for even though we are finding things are difficult right now. Even if it feels impossible to be grateful for the situation, it may be possible to appreciate the people who are supportive of you, or you may even find something you can learn from the challenging experience. If this feels too difficult, maybe you could be grateful for small things, such as a cup of tea, a good book, or a kind word. In doing so, you will be training your mind to see the good in you life, even during challenging times.
Bohlmeijer, E.T., Kraiss, J.T., Watkins, P. et al. Promoting Gratitude as a Resource for Sustainable Mental Health: Results of a 3-Armed Randomized Controlled Trial up to 6 Months Follow-up. J Happiness Stud 22, 1011–1032 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00261-5
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (Eds.). (2004). The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press.
Lai, S. T., & O’Carroll, R. E. (2017). ‘The Three Good Things’–The effects of gratitude practice on wellbeing: A randomised controlled trial. Health Psychology Update, 26(1), 10-18.
Toepfer, S.M., Cichy, K. & Peters, P. Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author Benefits. J Happiness Stud 13, 187–201 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7