Gratitude is an important quality, but how do you develop it?
The last decade has seen numerous wellness trends come and go. But gratitude journaling is no longer new and, in these consistently anxious times, has seen a resurgence in the last 18 months. Is this really toxic positivity repackaged into pink plastic and gold, or is this a worthwhile mental health practice we should take more seriously?
The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) has done many studies on gratitude over the last ten years and has consistently shown that a sustained practice of gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. By training the brain to be more sensitive to experiencing thankfulness, people will experience:
More optimism and joy
Fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation
Greater life satisfaction
All of these are a consequence of gratitude being the antidote to negative feelings like envy, resentment and regret; acknowledging the value of a thing or person stops us taking it for granted and magnifies the pleasures of our lives. In essence, when we get caught up in the returning FOMO that post-lockdown brings, and when we feel that we’re not attaining the milestones that our friends are, refocusing those negative feelings positively will enable us to see rationally what our life already is and thus make us happier and more content. As bestselling author and former monk Jay Shetty says: "When you focus on problems, all you get is more problems, and when you focus on possibilities, what you get is more opportunities."
Studies have also shown that people who have a grateful disposition recover more quickly from trauma and stress. People with specific gene variants are less sensitive to positive life events and very sensitive to negative life events, meaning that they may struggle to be grateful and the techniques which have improved others’ wellbeing may not work for them. However, gratitude is a complex social emotion and the reason why someone may find it difficult to feel gratitude can’t be simplified into basic genetics just yet – ye olde ‘nature vs. nurture’ wreaks havoc with any such theory.
Forcing gratitude can indeed sway into toxic positivity if not exercised in a measured way. Trying to be grateful for something that is traumatic, unhealthy or makes you unhappy, rather than dealing with the issue, will bring no resolutions and even exacerbate the problem long-term. In these cases, negative emotions will actually spur on your survival instinct and help you to progress. Excessive or forced gratitude may also mean that you downplay your own successes, like gaining that promotion.
It’s also important to understand that there isn’t an ‘economy of gratitude'. You should be grateful to your partner for making you a cup of tea, but you don’t consistently owe them one or become immediately indebted for another favour.
Romantic relationships are especially interesting to look at when examining active gratitude. As they are typically more intimate than other kinds of relationships, gratitude needs to be mutual to work effectively. Florida State University asked 120 newlywed couples to fill out two surveys, one reporting how happy they were with their relationship and another for how much gratitude they felt for and expressed to their partner. They repeated the happiness survey every four months and the gratitude survey a year after the marriage. If a partner is less grateful than their other half, the more grateful partner misses out on the usual benefits of a grateful mindset and, unsurprisingly, their satisfaction with the relationship steeply declines when they perceive that they aren’t being as valued.
Mutually grateful pairs usually started out more satisfied in their relationships and, three years on, were even more so. But two ungrateful partners are more likely to be satisfied with the relationship than one grateful and one ungrateful person being together. So, balance in levels of gratitude is the key. Articulating your appreciation to your partner increases trust because it acknowledges vulnerability and interdependence. Psychologists at the University of North Carolina think that more gratitude will mean that we have better sex too.
Perhaps you’re thinking, "I am grateful. I know I’m lucky. I don’t need to make a list."
Again, it comes back to focus and making the conscious effort to improve mindset ourselves. Just like needing a desk to work on, you need a space to focus and amplify the positivity in your life for it to work effectively.
Your gratitude journal can be any old notebook you have but putting pen to paper is more impactful than writing notes on your phone or laptop if you can help it. Then, most importantly, think about what you really feel grateful for; be authentic and specific. If you don’t feel it, don’t write it. It’s quality not quantity. Shetty suggests writing five things you’re grateful for on a Sunday evening for a few weeks to start. Then, start writing five things you’re grateful for side-by-side with five aspirations, to give you clear perspective on your current circumstances.
Once you’re feeling more positive and practiced at the journaling, Shetty says you can move on to writing five short letters (which you don’t send) each month to people who have impacted you negatively to reflect on what they taught you. This is hard and probably not for everyone, but it’s an interesting idea worth trying.
Ultimately, even the act of being sure to say "Thank you" more genuinely and frequently will enhance your relationship with yourself and the world around you – gratitude isn’t a fad, it’s essential.