The Surprising Truth about Gratitude

by Stacey on May 29, 2012

The Surprising Truth about GratitudeIt sounds woo-woo, but there’s actual real research that backs up how life-changing the practice of gratitude is.

Several recent studies have shown that focusing attention on the positive things in life—essentially, “counting your blessings”—leads to increases in both physical health and happiness.

In one of the first studies on gratitude, one group of volunteers was asked to list five things for which they were thankful, once a week for 10 weeks in a row. Their “blessings” ranged from “my family” to “good health” to “The Rolling Stones.”

The researchers divided the other volunteers into two control groups. One group had instructions to think about their five daily hassles each day; the other recorded the five major events that had occurred. Relative to these two groups, those who were asked to express gratitude felt more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Also, they reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headaches, coughing, or nausea) and more time spent exercising.

One of my favorite mantras is “look for things to appreciate.” Why? Because the research is so conclusive that grateful people have more energy and optimism, are less bothered by life’s hassles, are more resilient in the face of stress, have better health, and suffer less depression.

And guess what? Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., says gratitude is something that everyone can learn and improve with the resulting effect of becoming more satisfied with their lives. The practice is simple: Go through your day looking for things to appreciate. At the end of the day, list 5 things you are grateful for.

Simple, yes. And powerful. By committing to this process you will profoundly change your brain. Becoming consciously appreciative of the blessings in your life is something like exercising a muscle. You can think of it as building your gratitude or hope or resilience muscles, whatever works for you.

Neurologically speaking, you are training a part of your brain called the reticular activating system (or RAS). You’ve heard me talk about the RAS before because you can also train it to look for solutions to your thorniest problems.

The RAS has been described as the “Google of the brain,” a search engine that we literally program to pick relevant and useful bits of data out of the thousands of bits of information available to us at any given moment.

As you look for things to appreciate, your RAS makes a shift in its focus. Rather than looking for what’s wrong (which years of former programming—probably handed down from your parents or your grade school teachers), you are programming your neural search engine to look for what’s right.

You see, the key to a happy life is simply to be happy. Having a satisfying daily life is much more important to most people’s sense of personal fulfillment than achieving some lofty goal like winning the Pulitzer.

But how do you have a satisfying daily life? The easiest way is to look for things to appreciate. You may have to start with small things, like the way the light plays on the leaves, or the way your cat purrs when you rub that special spot, but when you get in the habit of looking for the things that please you, you will find them—and you may find more things pleasing in the big picture as well.

If in a day you find more things to appreciate than to find fault with, you will feel happy and satisfied by the end of it. String together many similar days and you will have had a happy and satisfying life.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to start a Gratitude Journal. This is non-negotiable. When I started mine over 15 years ago, I set the intention of finding five things in the day to appreciate. Sometimes it was challenging to find 5 things and I’d be left with my breath, or the fact that I didn’t burn my toast.

Now I am aware of being grateful for so much that I decided to limit myself to filling one page in my journal (or else I wouldn’t get to sleep!)—and I’m still writing up the side of the page in tiny print to get it all in.

Keep a beautiful journal by your bedside and write in it every night. You’ll find that you go through the day looking for—and finding—things that you appreciate and for which you are grateful. You will literally attract more good things to you when you appreciate the positive aspects of your day.

As Melodie Beattie wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.”

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