How to keep the gratitude going beyond Thanksgiving

6101003565_4cc39015fb_zIf you ask a psychologist how to become more grateful, most likely they’ll give you the typical advice: keep a gratitude journal.

Gratitude journals not only make us more grateful, but they’ve been scientifically proven to make us feel better about life as a whole; feel more optimistic, energetic, determined, and attentive; offer more support to others; and have fewer health complaints.

Still, not everyone has the discipline to sit down at night and write three things they’re grateful for. Even if you use an app like Happier, as I do, you can still find yourself in a gratitude slump from time to time.

But there’s a reason why we all manage to scrounge up something to be grateful for on Thanksgiving: social pressure! If you can’t come up with anything to share around the dinner table, well, you’re just making everyone wait that much longer to take a juicy bite of turkey.

Luckily, we can use that social pressure (or accountability or motivation, if those sound less burdensome) throughout the rest of the year. All we need is a gratitude buddy, someone who also wants to stay grateful and is willing to share their objects of gratitude with us. Here are three ideas for how to do it:

By email

A week ago, I decided it might be nice to do a gratitude exercise with my dad. We talk on the phone weekly and email occasionally, and I thought this could help us stay in touch, stay positive, and share our lives with each other. I sent him a few things I was grateful for and invited him to reply.

Now, I look forward to getting those emails full of positive things in the life of someone I love, ranging from the funny to the heartfelt:

  • “Two big branches fell down in yesterday’s heavy snow and just missed Mom’s new car.”
  • “Knicks are getting better…they lost again, but in overtime.”
  • “I am grateful I have found my love of sculpting.”
  • “I am grateful that a cow gave me a new heart valve that seems to be working so well.”
  • “To finally realize what I should have been…an explorer.”

At the dinner table

After discovering such strong links between gratitude and joy in her research, Brené Brown started a gratitude practice with her family at dinner. For the past few years, after saying grace, they all have been saying one thing they’re grateful for.

“It changed my family and the way we live every day,” she says. “Not only does it absolutely invite more joy into our house, it’s such a soulful window into my kids’ lives.”

Her young son is often grateful for things like bugs or frogs, but sometimes he talks about getting picked up early from school or understanding adjectives. For a full month after a friend’s mother died, Brown’s daughter was grateful that her family was healthy.

Although her kids were a little hesitant at first, now they’re fully playing the role of accountability partners in gratitude. Brown recalls, “On those crazy-busy nights, where we’re trying to get to soccer and piano and homework, and [my husband] and I just say a quick prayer and we start eating, my kids are like, ‘Woah. What are you grateful for?’”

Before bed

Gratitude journaling has been shown to help some people fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning. This led researcher Robert Emmons to conclude: “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

So a little gratitude before bedtime couldn’t hurt, right? We can do this with our kids or with our partner. Professor Martin Seligman does an exercise with his kids called “Best Moments,” where they review the things they liked and didn’t like about the day. With our partner, we might list things we’re grateful to them for or just positive moments from our day.

Beyond giving us some motivation and accountability, having a gratitude buddy will probably end up strengthening our relationship to them – which is something else to be grateful for.

Photo by Flickr user Kate Ware

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Explore the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!

7 surprising scientific facts about gratitude

gratitude thank you

If conversation is lagging around the Thanksgiving dinner table and your relatives are threatening to tell embarrassing stories about you, why not break out some of these scientific facts about gratitude?

Gratitude is one of the most well-researched concepts in positive psychology, with countless studies looking at its benefits and how to maximize them. Keeping a gratitude journal, or “counting your blessings,” is one of the most-recommended happiness practices ever.

So what does the science have to say about gratitude, beyond the fact that it’s the best thing since apple pie and you should be doing it more? Here are some surprising facts about gratitude: 

1. Women are more grateful than men

A national survey on gratitude, which polled over 2,000 Americans, found that women tend to be more grateful than men. This confirms the findings from another study, which found that American men are particularly uncomfortable expressing gratitude (compared to women and compared to Germans). The Youth Gratitude Project also found that girls are more grateful than boys, suggesting that the difference starts early.

2. People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else

That same national survey found that work is the last place you’re likely to hear gratitude. Only 10% of people say thank you to their colleagues on any given day, and 60% of people never express gratitude at work.

3. Gratitude is good for your cholesterol

UC San Francisco professor Wendy Berry Mendes is investigating the health effects of gratitude, and her preliminary findings show that grateful people have higher good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, as well as lower blood pressure. One of the reasons for this might be gratitude’s effect on stress.

4. Grateful people spend more time exercising

More grateful people – who see their health as a blessing or a gift – may take better care of themselves. In one study by professors Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough, people were asked to list five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. Among a host of other benefits, they spent more time exercising than a control group. 

5. Gratitude can improve your zzz’s

In another study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. For people with neuromuscular disorders, this exercise improved sleep (among other benefits). They were able to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning. This led Emmons to conclude: “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

6. Gratitude could help you achieve your goals

In one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress toward them. This might be because gratitude makes us more energetic.

7. You can overdo it

Despite all the benefits of gratitude, you can practice it too much. A study by UC Riverside’s Sonja Lyubomirsky asked people to journal five things they were grateful for weekly or three times a week for six weeks – and only the weekly journalers became more grateful. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t count your blessings every day, just that the average person shouldn’t. Gratitude can become a routine chore, so it’s important to find your ideal frequency and mix things up from time to time.

Photo by Flickr user Jen Collins

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Explore the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!