There is one virtue in the field of positive psychology that researchers keep coming up with, because its effects are almost undisputed among positive psychologists: Gratitude. Countless studies have repeatedly shown the positive effects of feeling grateful for the things we have. Be it good friends or just the simple things in life such as the smile of a stranger in the street or the taste of a delicious meal. However, to tell someone about the importance of gratitude seems to be in one line with telling someone to not forget breathing. Sure – everybody knows that feeling grateful is important!
But how much time do you actually spend to savor the good things in life? How often do you lean back to just count the blessings you already have in your life? Surprisingly, a lot of people know what they ought to do, but they still don’t behave accordingly. This is called the knowledge to performance gap and is the reason why „common sense is often not that common“.
One of the leading experts in the field of gratitude research is Robert Emmons from the University of California, Davis. In his book „Gratitude Works – A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity“ he describes gratitude as a morally complex disposition, a virtue that should not be reduced to a mere technique. It is an attitude towards life rather than a simple inner feeling. And he also gives advices on how to live a more grateful life. But before going to look at specific exercises, let’s look into some results of scientific research.
In one paper, published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough summarized three studies they undertook in order to figure out the benefits of gratitude. In one study, they were working together with 192 study participants that had to write a weekly journal over the course of ten weeks. One third of these participants was assigned to write down things they were grateful for, another third had to reflect about hassles such as having difficulties to find a parking place or a messy kitchen that no one wants to clean. The last third had to just write down some things that happened to them throughout the last week. When comparing these groups, the researchers found the gratitude group to report feeling better about their lives as a whole in comparison to the other two groups. Moreover, the participants in the gratitude group reported having fewer signs of illness such as headache, chest pain or a cold.
In the other studies, they could even find societal benefits of feeling grateful. Study participants in the gratitude group reported having helped other people more often than the participants in the other two groups reported. So, some gratitude exercises do not only have personal benefits, like making people healthier and happier, but it also seems to affect people’s prosocial behavior. These could be good arguments to engange in some gratitude exercises, so let’s see what gratitude exercises are out there!
From the endless list of gratitude exercises, two of them are especially noteworthy. The most famous exercise is called „Three Things“. This exercise requires you to write down three things you are grateful for such as your friends or your family. You can do this exercise every week or even every day. However, in order to avoid adaptation, it is important to vary the things you are grateful for. So, rather than writing down your family every time, you should try to find other things you could be grateful for such as a good talk over lunch with a colleague or today’s positive feedback from your boss. And when you do the exercise, take enough time for doing it. There is no need to hurry and the more you let the feeling of gratitude unfold, the more you will benefit from this exercise.
The other exercise is the „Gratitude Letter“. Have you ever told the people you are close to how much they mean to you? This exercise is about doing that. Grab a pen and a piece of paper and write a letter to a close friend, for instance, where you tell him or her why you are grateful to have him/her in your life. Then, you can either send it to your friend or – even better – meet him/her in person and read the letter out loud. That might be the start for a deep and fulfilling conversation and this will definitely be a positive experience!
Robert A. Emmons & Michael E. McCullough (2013): “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 377-389.
Robert A. Emmons (2013): “Gratitude Works – A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity”