Stopping to smell the roses and focus on the good things in life is one of the cornerstones of happiness. Gratitude helps us to put things in perspective, feel more positive, and reduce the stressful and upsetting feelings that come from criticising, complaining and wallowing on the negative.
Why practice gratitude?
There is a growing body of research that suggests regular gratitude practice can improve your mental wellbeing. Gratitude encourages you to be happier, feel more zest for life, stress less, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, forge stronger relationships, and may even boost your immune system.
One of the world's leading experts on gratitude research, University of California Davis psychologist Dr Robert Emmons, found that simply keeping a gratitude journal (regularly taking note of things or moments for which we’re grateful) can significantly increase wellbeing and life satisfaction. In this study, participants who kept gratitude journals reported fewer health complaints and felt more optimistic and motivated than those who recorded daily troubles or experiences. Dr. Emmons explains some of these findings in this excellent video, as well as in his book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
The idea that being thankful may make you feel better has also been supported by neuroscientists, suggesting that practising gratitude can encourage changes in the brain that improve mood. A 2009 National Institute of Health study, for example, found that gratitude may trigger a stronger blood flow to the hypothalamus, which plays a role in stress levels and sleep patterns. Gratitude has also been found to activate the neurotransmitter dopamine, the brain's natural ''feel-good'' chemical.
Here are some practical ways to boost your gratitude
Keep a gratitude journal
One of the simplest ways to slowly bring your focus towards the positive is to keep a gratitude journal. This means taking a few moments each day to reflect on the positive things in your life and to make note of them. Whether you use a falling-apart notepad or a fancy scrapbook filled with mementos and drawings, over time, you’ll find it gets easier to notice the positive in situations and shift your focus away from the negative.
Cut back on complaints
Challenge yourself to see how long you can go without complaining, criticising or gossiping. It might be harder than you think! Try to notice how much energy you spend on negativity, and how it feels to let go of some of those thoughts.
Share your gratitude
Expressing your positive thoughts – whether its by making an effort to comment on the nice weather, or extending a sincere thank you to the girl who makes your coffee in the morning, or by sharing your thankful thoughts on Instagram – is a great way to invite others into your experience, quite possibly helping them to feel more positive too.
Getting in touch with your creative side helps your positive thoughts to flow more freely. And if you can find a creative activity that directly relates to gratitude, even better. Try handwriting a letter to someone, bake them a cake to show your appreciation, paint or draw a picture of something that makes you happy, or start a visual diary where you can just doodle your feelings and collect images that represent your thankfulness. Or, you could try something like the ‘gratitude jar’ described here.
Focus on people
Our relationships play a huge role in our levels of happiness. Dr Emmons suggests concentrating on the people for whom we’re thankful, more than circumstances or material items. Whether it’s simply reflecting on your relationships in your journal, giving compliments, or expressing your appreciation for your loved ones, there are a variety of ways you can extend gratitude towards people and share some of your positive feelings.