The Practice of Gratitude

November 21, 2020


/ˈɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/ – the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

It’s been called a virtue, an attitude, an emotion, and even a skill.

Poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson opined its merit, saying, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously,” while philosophers such as the stoic Cicero espoused, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

Of course, religions have long emphasized the importance of gratitude. In the East, Buddha said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” (Katannu Sutta), while in the West, the Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

In fact, its importance is valued so much that cultures around the world have holiday celebrations focused on gratitude; celebrations such as the Moon Festival in China, Sikkot in Israel, Erntedankfest in Germany, and our own American Thanksgiving, to name but a few.

As we gather with family and friends this holiday season, and pause to practice the age-old adage of counting our blessings, perhaps we should ask ourselves a question: How often do we really practice gratitude, without a holiday to remind us?

We may find our answer is “not often enough.” But the good news is, with a little self-awareness and conscious effort, we can strengthen our gratitude muscle—and live a better life for doing so.

Improved Relationships

Relationships form the cornerstone of our lives. Because they have such a profound impact on our lives, nurturing them is imperative—and showing gratitude is a great place to start.

Just ask Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC–Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. Considered the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, Emmons says gratitude has a significant positive impact on relationships.

“People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others. They’re rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks,” he writes on his website.

Emmons says grateful people place less importance on material things, tend not to judge the success of others based on what they’ve accumulated, are less envious of others, and share more readily with others.

The practice of gratitude can also lead to the pay-it-forward effect, meaning the more grateful we feel, the more likely we are to practice helpful behaviors, and the more likely those that we help will go on to help others. A study in Psychological Science showed gratitude drives these helping behaviors, and can even increase levels of assistance provided to strangers.

Gratitude can also have a positive impact in the workplace. According to Emmons, gratitude is “the ultimate performance-enhancing substance.” It drives people to be more helpful and kind, exhibit compassion, encourage others, and even volunteer for extra work assignments.

The growing plague of excessive entitlement, whereby people feel life or others owe them something, can actually be thwarted through the practice of gratitude. Entitlement harms not only relationships with others, but oneself, and can manifest in the form of aggression and violence, theft, hostility, poor work performance, envy, greed, resentment, lack of accountability, and blaming others. According to Emmons, “A person who feels entitled to everything will be grateful for nothing; gratitude is the antidote to entitlement.”

Better Sleep

Sleep impacts our performance at work and how we go about our entire day. Without a good night’s sleep, we feel foggy, unfocused, lethargic, and even irritable. Poor sleep is also associated with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. It exerts significant harm to our health.

A number of studies have found that gratitude helps improve sleep. For example, a study in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that the practice of gratitude can help us sleep longer and more soundly, perhaps by acting as a remedy for pre-sleep worries or depression.

So the next time you’re having trouble falling asleep, instead of reaching for that bottle of medication, why not reach for a gratitude journal? Or try a gratitude sleep technique. Lie in bed with your eyes closed, and focus on something you’re grateful for, recalling all the reasons why. Then relax, as the good feelings wash over you. You can also do a breathing technique, inhaling gratitude, while exhaling any unwanted feelings, tension, and negativity.

Improved Physical Health

While we’re continually discovering the impact our minds have on physical health, it may surprise you to know that something as simple as the practice of gratitude can be so beneficial.

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