As we near the season of giving thanks, I’ve been reflecting on all of the things I’ve accomplished in my life. In many ways, these accomplishments had nothing to do with me, but had everything to do with a rock solid support system, great education, and most importantly, a value system that’s prevented me from going down any number of dark paths.
Ironically, being thankful for the things we have doesn’t make us complacent, it actually ensures that we’ll have more to be thankful for in the future. To see why this is, we can dive deeper into the psychology behind expressing gratitude.
Studies have shown that some people simply have a more grateful disposition than others, meaning that they experience gratitude frequently. Those who score high on assessments of gratitude report fewer doctor visits, better relationships, and greater overall life satisfaction than those measured to be less grateful (2).
You might make the connection here between gratitude and optimism, and there’s definitely some overlap between the two concepts. The opposite of gratitude is regret, which is the negative emotional experience of contrasting misfortune with “what could have been”. Naturally, this happens more frequently for pessimistic people, but I don’t consider the two to be exactly the same.
I say this because we tend to look at pessimism as only a trait. I’m sure we can think of some people we know who are always seeing the bad side of things.
And if you know anything about being human, you know that trying to artificially induce positive emotions can often produce the opposite effect. The reasons why someone might be a pessimist can deep and painful, and are beyond the scope of this article.
If, on the other hand, someone has a less grateful disposition, there are simple ways to cultivate gratitude in everyday life, and perhaps even offset pessimistic ways of thinking. Studies have shown that gratitude isn’t just a trait. It can also be a state (2), and one that can be induced by specific behaviors like:
Waking up in the morning and writing down things that you’re grateful for is a powerful practice. The effects are magnified if you sustain the habit for a long time. It could be as simple as writing: “I’m grateful for waking up this morning”. Even if you don’t fully believe the things you’re writing at first, you’ll become more adamant over time, and your gratitude will grow.
Express Gratitude to Others
Think about how great it feels when someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time reaches out to you just to ask how you’re doing? With that in mind, think of a person you don’t see a lot, or maybe even someone you see every day, and remind them that you’re grateful for them.
This can have a profound effect on relationships, and my own experience it can make both parties more comfortable voicing concerns to one another as well.
In a previous post, I wrote about the important of eating free of distractions. According to the Association for Psychological Science, more than half of American meals are eaten with the TV on. This, in turn, diminishes the sensory experience of taste (1). The brain can only devote so much attention to your food when it’s also mentally binging on Friends.
Conversely, the experience of savoring lets us focus only on the nourishing qualities of the food, and by taking a moment to silently acknowledge our gratitude for a meal, we’re preparing ourselves to get the most out of it. If you want to experience this firsthand, grab your favorite snack or candy. Before you scarf it down, tell yourself that you’re deserving of this treat. Then, while eating it, chew more slowly than you normally would, focusing on the flavor and texture of what you’re eating. If you truly savor every bit of the experience, you might not even want to go back for another.
Of course, savoring can be done with more than just food. You can savor sex, a hot shower, or a hike in the woods.
I encourage you to give at least one of these practices a try, and see what kind of effect it has on your perspective. You might not notice anything groundbreaking right away, but over time, the effects really do add up.
(1) Herbert, W. (2013, May 10). A Good Meal: The Science of Savoring. Retrieved November 24, 2019.
(2) Sheldon, K. M., Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B. (2011). Designing positive psychology: taking stock and moving forward.