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G is for Gratitude: practices for greater happiness and health

White text on green background says G is for Gratitude

You may have heard that practicing gratitude can have profound effects on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

This is not new knowledge. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, gratitude is emphasized as a pathway to inner peace. The principle of Santosha invites us to find contentment in the present moment. This involves acknowledging both the joys and challenges of life without clinging (raga) to one or resisting (dvesha) the other, and finding gratitude for things as they are in this moment.

Modern science is once again reinforcing these ancient philosophies. Studies by researchers like Robert Emmons and Sonja Lyubomirsky demonstrate that regularly expressing gratitude can lead to increased happiness, improved relationships, and even better physical health such as heart health.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude: is it a feeling, a trait, or a behaviour? Well, it can be all three.

Gratitude is often defined as a present moment feeling of thankfulness or appreciation, and usually associated with external factors. For example, feeling thankful when somebody helps you or gives you a gift, or feeling grateful in the moment for the positive elements in your life.

Research suggests that whether somebody has a tendency or disposition towards being grateful – in other words, exhibits gratitude as a trait – is influenced by a number of factors such as gender, culture, personality and cognitive factors. So is gratitude something you are born with, or can you develop it?

Leading happiness researcher (I will get to what gratitude has to do with happiness in a moment), Sonja Lyubomirsky, found three factors that affect happiness: 50% is determined by a natural “set point” that we are born with, 10% is based on our life circumstances, and 40% is related to intentional activities that we undertake in order to develop happiness.

And the number one intentional activity in her book about increasing happiness? You guessed it: expressing gratitude. This is where deliberate, chosen behaviours can help us to develop gratitude (and in turn, happiness).

Rocks painted with messages about gratitude
Image by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

Cultivating gratitude

So, how can we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives? According to leading experts, the practice of gratitude doesn't require grand gestures or be limited to monumental achievements. Instead, it's about cultivating a mindset of appreciation for the simple joys that surround us each day.

Like most practices, different things help different people. Just as I would suggest finding the right yoga practice to suit your needs, it’s important to try various techniques until you find what works for you. But here are a few suggestions:

  1. Gratitude journals and jars: Enjoy writing? Keep a journal of 3-5 things that you are grateful for, on a frequency that suits you (more on frequency later). Or write one thing on a slip of paper (again, choose a schedule that suits) and keep it in a jar. Then choose a point in time, such as New Year’s Eve, to read all the slips of paper and savour the moments of gratitude you have accumulated.

  2. Expressing gratitude: Some families have a ritual of sharing 1-3 things they are grateful for around the dining room table. Other techniques that have been researched include writing a letter of appreciation to people in your life. Some people send these, for others, just the act of writing it helps to cultivate gratitude. Personally I’ve started mimicking Ted Lasso: I love the way he says “I appreciate you” wherever he goes.

  3. Gratitude meditation: Gratitude can be the object of your attention in a mindfulness meditation practice. If you aren’t sure where to start, there are many guided gratitude meditations on the Insight Timer app. Here’s one I like:

  4. Gratitude in the moment: Take a few moments to stop, pause, and reflect on what you are grateful for, in this moment. This is something I practiced frequently when going through cancer treatment, and it really helped keep despair and overwhelm at bay.

  5. Give back: a great way to express appreciation for what you have is to give back to others. This might be in the form of random acts of kindness, or volunteering or donating to organisations that you value.

A pink jounral with "Today I am grateful for" written on the cover
Image by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Can you have too much of a good thing?

What about frequency? Well again, this differs for each individual. One study found that writing down 5 things you are grateful for once a week was effective at improving people’s happiness. But 3 times a week was not. The important takeaway here is that if the frequency starts to make the activity feel forced or like a chore, it won’t work. So change it.

Beware toxic positivity

While gratitude is undoubtedly a powerful practice, it's essential to acknowledge that life isn't always sunshine and rainbows. There can be a lot of “toxic positivity” in the wellbeing space: think “good vibes only” memes and misguided advice about finding “silver linings”.

Whilst choosing to focus on the positives in your life is a scientifically proven way to improve health and happiness, this doesn’t mean avoiding or suppressing the negative or neutral aspects of life in favour of putting on a happy face.

In fact, in my opinion, this is the greatest gift of a yoga practice: developing awareness of ALL emotions, and the ability to feel and tolerate all experiences and feelings. When we can do so without reacting impulsively to them, we can achieve greater equilibrium and peace.

It's also important to note that gratitude practices don’t benefit everyone. For some people, including those experiencing profound depression, some gratitude interventions made them feel worse. As always, it is important to see what works for you as an individual.

A final word on gratitude

In essence, yoga reminds us that gratitude is not about denying the reality of difficult emotions or pretending that everything is perfect. Instead, it's about embracing the full spectrum of human experience—the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows—and finding gratitude amidst it all.

References and Further Reading

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