I’ve always bought into the idea that you can’t be depressed and grateful at the same time. There are now hundreds of studies demonstrating all the benefits of gratitude. So I won’t bore you with yet another article about how awesome gratitude is. What I haven’t seen is how to practice gratitude in a meaningful way. What are people doing in all these gratitude studies that is benefiting them so much? Is it really practical for the average person to do?
Just in case your one of the few people not familiar with benefits of gratitude, it has been associated with all kinds of positive outcomes, include happiness, positive emotions, depression, physical health, more frequent exercise, more prosocial behavior, decreased effects of stress, increase life satisfaction, improved sleep, and increased forgiveness, just to name a few.
How Should You Be Grateful?
There are two main ways to be grateful. You can either contemplate your gratitude or express it. Contemplating might include meditating on what you are grateful for, writing about it (as is done in most gratitude research), or just think about it. Expressing gratitude involves demonstrating it in some way. Sending an email, letter, or thank you note for someone’s kindness, saying thank you to that person or explaining why you appreciate them, giving them a gift or doing something nice for them in some way.
There hasn’t been much research to distinguish what’s better. My first guess would be that expressing gratitude to others would be more helpful but the research so far doesn’t say that. Whether you express it or contemplate it, you’ll be benefit. Plus, you may not be grateful to a person but just grateful for something, like the ability to walk, your good health, and so no.
Gratitude Doesn’t Take Much Time
You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk contemplating all of life’s gifts to you in order to benefit from gratitude. Most of the research on gratitude involves short self-guided exercises. One of the often-cited studies gave participants these instructions:
There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.
This takes about 5 to 15 minutes to write. Participants did this once a week for 10 weeks. That’s it. Participants reported more optimism, gratefulness, and a more favorable outlook on their lives. Most gratitude studies use simple interventions like this. So you don’t have to worry about finding tons of time. As a person who has two young kids, that a good thing for me.
I’ve been trying to be more grateful myself and it really has made me more positive. I started to think about appreciating simple things, like the food I eat, the weather, living in a safe neighborhood. Then I started to look at the things I complained about and wondered, “Could I find something to here that I appreciate?” I thought about how little “free time” I had because of childcare, daily chores, and work. But then I realized that this is actually a gift. I have people who I love in my life, stable employment with great benefits, and a newer home that doesn’t need any major work.
I was also thinking that I would run out of things to be grateful for, or I’d have to go over the same things repeatedly. But this hasn’t been the case at all. It’s been easy to find new things all the time, especially if you think back over the day and look for specific things you could appreciate.
Practice Makes A Difference
One study reviewed over three dozen studies and found that the longer gratitude was practiced the better the results. Now, doing anything is better than doing nothing but the studies show that the when you go from practicing for 4 weeks to 8 weeks the improvements on subjective well-being are more than double.
Is there anything significant about this 8 weeks? I think so. It takes a while to form a new habit and 4 weeks just isn’t enough. But around 8 weeks if you’re still practicing you are really getting to the point where you’re serious. (If you think it takes 21-days to form a habit, think again. Listen to my podcast about Busting The 21-Day Myth).
Finding time is always hard. Can you just think about being grateful instead of writing about it? I think you can. If you think about gratitude throughout the day, that’s going to be a lot better than only doing it when you have time to write. Appreciating something in the moment, right when something happens, is important as well. In the end, writing about being grateful will probably make you think about it more, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
How Long Should You Practice Gratitude?
There hasn’t been any research on whether sitting down for 5 minutes vs. 50 minutes will make you more grateful. But there is research on psychotherapy that might help us with this question. Studies look at benefits from homework assignments given to patients in therapy find that the quality of the homework done and not the quantity is more correlated with improvements in mental health.
If this research applies to gratitude then finding just one or two small things to be grateful for is going to be more beneficial than listing a dozen things each day. This make sense to me anyway. If you’re superficially listing 10 things you are grateful, you won’t really focus in on why your grateful, what this thing means to you, or how it has helped you. I suggest just finding something meaningful and then thinking about that in more depth rather than trying to appreciate everything.
Gratefulness As An Activity Vs. A Way Of Life
I’ve talked about the kind of gratitude that comes from doing specific activities as part of a self-help program, but there is another kind of gratefulness. This is gratefulness as a way of life. These people are what researchers call dispositionally grateful. They go through life appreciating what they have and their friends, family, and others. They take little for granted and recognize how lucky they are.
The research shows that people who are dispositionally grateful experience numerous mental and physical health benefits. Ideally, if you keep practicing gratitude, you can get to the point where you are just living life in a more grateful way. Without needing an activity, you appreciate your life and the things you have or may take for granted.
Small steps, even just 5 to 10 minutes a day, toward developing gratefulness can improve your mood and help you to be a better person. Writing about gratefulness can be helpful but thinking about it throughout the day is the goal in my book. You need to be consistent and practice gratitude on a regular basis, the longer the better. Ideally, you would get to a point where you begin to be more grateful as a way of life rather than as a technique. But gratitude is not a quick fix to finding happiness. (see this post about why you should chase happiness). It needs to be done because you want to cultivate this kind of attitude in your life. Then as as “side-effect” you will experience all those benefits.