Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Being Grateful Makes You Happier

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then you might indulge in the tradition of saying what you're thankful for before devouring the turkey and green bean casserole; a delightful holiday that I was mostly unaware of - apart from through episodes of Friends - until I started meeting Americans on my travels. Apart from being completely enamoured with pumpkin pie, I was touched by the idea of everybody going around the table, saying what they were grateful for. Surely it's a great way to make kids appreciate what they've got. But then - why limit expressions of gratitude to one day a year?

It turns out that gratitude is really good for us. Over the last few years, Positive Psychologists have found that people who are generally more grateful are also happier (or, to phrase it properly, have higher subjective ratings of well-being). Of course, you may think, those who have more to be grateful for would be happier, while those riddled with bad luck are far more likely to be miserable. 

However, it isn't as simple as that. In one of a few similar studies, people were split into three groups. One group recorded their hassles; that is, everything that had been bothering them recently. Another recorded "neutral" information, such as what they had done that day (with no emotion attached), while the third wrote down what they were grateful for. Even though the groups were evenly mixed to start with, by the end the "grateful" group were happier - that is, they experienced positive emotions more than negative ones.  

So, what exactly does it mean to be grateful? You might feel a rush of positive feeling when somebody does something nice for you, or when you receive a present that you'd been hoping for; the appreciating you feel, then, is one form of gratitude. But it's much more than that - it's a way of thinking, from day to day.

When you bring gratitude into your life, you focus on positives rather than negatives. Let's say that your friend cancelled on your date. You might find yourself getting angry, thinking about what a terrible friend she is, bringing up all the other times she let you down. You might get upset, wondering what you did wrong, imagining that she doesn't really like you. It might seem strange to bring gratitude into the equation, now, but there are a few ways to look at it. Think of all the good things your friend has done for you, and feel grateful (to her, to yourself, to the universe) for the great experiences you've had together. Think about all the other good relationships in your life, and how good they can make you feel. Think about the free time that you now have, and what they can do with it, instead. And hey, if you somehow come to realise that you have no positive memories with your friend and that she always lets you down, feel grateful for the realisation, and do something about it!

If you're feeling down, and often find yourself feeling sad or angry, why not try a gratitude diary? Psychotherapists are even using this technique to help people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Keeping a gratitude diary can make you more optimistic, motivated, and generally boost that magical feeling of being one with the universe. 

As with everything, practice makes perfect, so even if you can't think of what you're grateful for at first, the more you try, the more you'll be able to add to the list as time goes by. If you're stuck for ideas, you can start by thinking of terrible situations - and feeling grateful that they're not happening to you! I know, that sounds a bit awful, but if you're able bodied, you're able to see, you're able to read, you live in a country where you're protected by human rights and you're nor living under fear of persecution, you have a family who'll help you out no matter what, you have access to a computer and the Internet, well - you're already better off than most of the world! A friend of mine keeps a gratitude blog at http://sincerelyyourstaylor.com/, which might give you some inspiration.

I am grateful that I have a wonderful, supportive family who let me live with them when I'm not making money. I'm grateful that I was brought up to have an independent, fiery spirit, which led me to Japan, Prague and on other adventures. I'm grateful that my sense of adventure led me to my husband, my soul mate; and to his wonderful, supportive family. I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've had, the beautiful place I grew up in, the education I've been able to receive, and that I was born in a time and place where it was OK for me to be a woman with my own mind. I'm grateful that I live in a time where we can come together, across oceans and borders, to share information, voices, and love. What are you grateful for?

Some actual studies:

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