The concept of “the gift” has been debated in cultural anthropology, philosophy, and theology. Yet, as Peter Leithart notes in his introduction to Gratitude: An Intellectual History, relatively little thought has been given to our responses to gifts—specifically, gratitude.
When we are grateful it is impossible to feel anxiety, stress, or fear. Expressing gratitude has been advised by every variety of spiritual and cultural elder. The ancients understood that gratitude was one of the highest forms of thought, and could even heal the body and mind.
Gratitude Across Time and Culture
In ancient Egypt, gratitude was exemplified in the ritual known as The Five Gifts of Hathor. Poor laborers were encouraged to regard the fingers of their left hand (the hand they reached with daily to harvest field crops) and to consider the five things they were most grateful for in their lives.
In ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in Jewish and Christian texts, we are taught to be grateful, and in Aboriginal culture, the Four Directions holds truth about the power of gratitude as well.
No matter where we look in human history, we can see that gratitude is highly valued, and modern scientific research just might be able to explain why.
The Science on Gratitude
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that gratitude has some profound implications for healing. People who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
- Higher levels of positive emotions;
- More joy, optimism, and happiness;
- Can act with more generosity and compassion toward others;
- Feeling less lonely and isolated.
Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being, finding that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
A study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being found that taking just 15 minutes to jot down a few grateful sentiments before bed, you may sleep better and longer.
So, what does all this really tell us? Put simply – better sleep, the healthy processing of emotions, and lessening of anxiety and stress from practicing gratitude all have monumental effects on our overall health. If all this is true, then how do we practice gratitude if we aren’t already in the habit of doing it?
Ways to Practice Gratitude
It may sound trite, but gratitude truly is an attitude. There are as many ways to cultivate this state of mind as there are leaves on a tree, but following are a few that are known to be extremely effective:
- Practice writing down at least ten things you are grateful for everyday. You can cheat and write this in a word processor, but you’ll find this will be more effective at changing your brain wave state if you do it long hand in journal.
- Make a photo-collage of all the things you are a grateful for in your life – you can include pictures of your family, where you live, beautiful places you’ve been, the family dog, etc. hang it somewhere that you will see it everyday, and mentally give thanks for all you’ve been given.
- Send one thank you a week note to people who have benefited you. This can be a friend, a co-worker, someone that waited on you at a restaurant, or a caregiver that helps to take care of your children. The very act of looking for people to give a thank-you card to will prime your brain to seek the good in your life and be thankful for it.
- Use thank you more in your business correspondence, people simply don’t hear it enough.
- Inspire gratitude in others by practicing random acts of kindness. Pay someone’s toll behind you at a toll road. Buy someone a cup of coffee. Smile at a stranger, or offer a sincere compliment. This act of “paying it forward” tells the Universe you are so thankful, you want to do things in advance to show your gratitude for future boons to come.
- An advanced gratitude practice is to thank your “enemies” or those who have made your life more challenging. Without them you likely wouldn’t have been compelled to develop certain skills, even if that translates to nothing more than perseverance in the face of hardship. Even those who have wished you harm have offered you a great gift. Your tenacity, strength, fortitude, and empathy was likely built, in part, from their actions.
Developing an attitude of gratitude is not only perfect for creating more joy and prosperity in your life, but it can be deeply healing. How can you be more grateful today?