Learning to be grateful

What is gratitude?

Put simply, gratitude is the emotion of thankfulness we feel whenever something beneficial happens. Commonly, people express their gratitude to one another as a courtesy for everyday interactions by simply saying, 'thank you'. And yet, gratitude goes far beyond these social niceties. By expressing it to ourselves – as well as others – a greater sense of overall thankfulness can develop. This, in turn, can lead to a better sense of proportion and focus on the things we should be most thankful for. Like any other psychological practice, it takes time to develop, but it can alter our state of mind and even the ways our brains are wired. By showing more gratitude, we are really helping ourselves as well as those around us.

Why is gratitude important?

As a social lubricant, gratitude means that people feel appreciated whenever even a cursory mention of gratitude is made. However, a greater display of gratitude, such as making a 'thank you' card or buying a gift can have a much more profound effect. This is because people often feel as though they are not appreciated or, at least, under-appreciated. Moreover, when we start to think about the things we are grateful for, gratitude moves into another area. By being more grateful, you can improve your mental health and even find that you sleep better as a result. In other words, it can act as a psychological tool to improve well-being.

How does gratitude help with well-being?

Gratitude assists with improving mental well-being in three ways. Firstly, it has a social impact. By showing more thankfulness so others will reciprocate, something which leads to a greater sense of happiness. Secondly, gratitude benefits your emotional state. It means less negative feelings of envy if you are thankful for what you have and helps you to feel more resilient and relaxed. Again, this leads to greater happiness. Finally, greater gratitude can help to shape personality traits. By being more grateful, you will end up being less materialistic and self-centred as well as developing better optimism. All of which results in greater all-round happiness and well-being, too.

Tips for being more grateful

You can show your thankfulness in new ways by just making some changes to your daily habits. Make sure to look someone in the eye when you thank them or even shake their hand to affirm your gratitude. Spend five minutes each day before meditating focusing on finding all the things - big or small - in life that you are grateful for. It can be anything from being healthy, to the sun shining after a few days of rain. Equally, you might write a list of the happy things that make you feel thankful and get it out from time-to-time to read it or even add to it.

Can gratitude be taught?

Remember that being grateful is a skill we learn. If we practice it enough, then it can become second nature but which, nevertheless, we continue to benefit from. By getting into the habit of showing gratitude, for instance, something as simple as saying 'thank you', we might be indirectly teaching others how to be grateful. This is especially true for a parent wanting to teach their children about gratitude and how to express it. Another way to teach gratitude is to explain the process of spending a moment every day to go through the things you are grateful for, perhaps before you get out of bed in the morning, or before going to sleep at night.

How does gratitude improve your health?

You might not think that something as straightforward as feeling a sense of gratitude could lead to beneficial health outcomes, but this is what the evidence bears out. To begin with, many doctors report that their patients who have a better sense of thankfulness will report fewer aches and pains. Although this might be that they simply report them less frequently than others – despite having the same sensations – studies seem to indicate that there are genuine physical upsides to being more grateful in life. In truth, however, it is in the field of mental health that gratitude can be so remarkably advantageous. There are numerous benefits to feeling more grateful about what you enjoy in life from the perspective of mental health. Not only can it help you to maintain a more positive attitude in adversity, but it is known to help see off some of the common psychological problems suffer from, such as anxiety. The latest research also indicates that being grateful will help you to avoid suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder if something horrible were to happen to you.

Why do gratitude journals work?

Keeping a journal about what you are grateful for in life helps you to focus on thankfulness better. If you simply say to yourself that you intend on becoming a more thankful person, then you may be able to achieve this from sheer will power alone. Most people, however, need a routine or a habit to focus their mind sufficiently on what it is they should be grateful for. You might do this by meditating for a while or by talking to loved ones about what you are most thankful about. However, a journal will make you really concentrate on your sense of thankfulness in a way that few other activities can match. What's more, you will produce a written record that you can turn back to when times are tough. So, they help to provide a greater focus on being grateful while also offering you the chance to review what is truly meaningful to you when you don't necessarily feel so grateful.

When does gratitude invoke indebtedness?

Some people understandably do not like the concept of automatically offered gratitude because it invokes the related concept of indebtedness. Let's say, for example, that someone offers you something. You may be thankful for it, but would being excessively grateful to the person that gave it to you also lead to feelings of anxiety – perhaps that you are now in their debt or need to repay the kindness in some way? If you are grateful to individuals in this way, then you can end up feeling trapped by their kindness. However, gratitude is a wider concept than indebtedness can ever be. Therefore, if you are grateful to the universe, for your luck or for the things that bring you joy in life – as opposed to being thankful for specific acts of generosity or kindness – you do not have to feel a sense of indebtedness at all. In this sense, being thankful is entirely removed from individualism and personal indebtedness.

How does gratitude make you happy?

Numerous research papers have linked greater levels of happiness in people who are actively grateful for what they have. For example, if you are thankful for so-called necessities, such as shelter, warmth and food, then you are more likely to appreciate them more. In turn, this can make you happier as you are less likely to seek happiness from other, non-essential things. In other words, being grateful can help you to avoid the pitfall of excessive materialism. Psychologists tend to agree that when people are asked to write down what they are grateful for over a period of time, they will also tend to report feeling happier in themselves. Indeed, it has also been noted among behavioural scientists that when people say thank you – especially at work – to colleagues and junior members of staff that the whole team works in a more cohesive way because everyone feels happier.

Are gratitude and appreciation the same?

In some sense, the terms gratitude and appreciation can be used interchangeably. You might be grateful for something that you also appreciate, for example. However, there are some distinctions that should also be drawn between the two terms. This is because merely appreciating something does not always imply a sense of thankfulness. You might appreciate that a friend holds a differing point of view from yourself, for instance. This means respectfully agreeing to differ on the subject, but it would not necessarily mean that you are grateful for them taking a different position from you. You might, of course, be grateful that you can disagree without falling out, but this is another matter. Essentially, being grateful differs from being appreciative because there is more thankfulness implied in the former compared to the latter.

Can gratitude help depression?

Being grateful will not necessarily help with depression. It will depend on numerous factors, including the clinical nature of the disorder, the wider mental attitude of the person involved and what it is they might be grateful for. That said, several scientific studies have shown that being more grateful can help some people with depression. It can help people to come out of depressive states as well as helping to prevent them from entering them. Being grateful cannot – so far as any medical research shows – make depression worse, so attempting to use it as a therapy against depression is a good idea. Starting a gratitude journal or writing a letter of thanks to someone can help to alleviate bad moods and overcome some of the symptoms associated with depression.

What are the Islamic concepts of gratitude?

Being grateful is a central plank in the Christian and Judaic traditions. In many senses, being thankful towards God is what both religions are about. In the Islamic tradition, gratitude towards God is also a central theme of the Holy Quran. Indeed, in Sura 14 it is made clear that more is afforded to those people who are grateful in this way. Some of the religious rites in Islam are also there to promote a greater sense of thankfulness among believers. For example, the call to prayer is something that is a five-times-a-day reminder that the faithful should be constantly grateful towards their maker. Equally, one of the main reasons that fasting is a big part of Ramadan is that it is supposed to remind people of the sustenance they should be grateful for.

Is gratitude a motivator of behaviour?

Several studies have found that showing more of a grateful attitude can help to motivate certain types of behaviour. In this sense, some of the emphasis on gratitude in organised religions may have an aspect of social conformity about them - when viewed from a sociological rather than a spiritual lens, that is. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, managers who are actively thankful to their employees will often see this returned in terms of increased productivity. In some cases, retailers who have actively thanked customers for their purchases have noticed an upturn in repeat sales thanks, in part at least, to this practice. People who have been thanked tend to want to build upon the existing relationship and to develop it further.

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