Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving anymore.
Research shows people who regularly acknowledge and reflect on what they are thankful for are happier and healthier. In a study of 24 personality strengths, gratitude was one of the most influential in helping people enjoy their lives.
But practicing gratitude isn’t always easy or automatic. It takes more than waiting for something good to happen, then casually noticing it.
Your brain has a tendency to regulate itself, like an emotional thermostat. This is called hedonic adaptation. The more you’re exposed to something that stimulates your emotions—whether it’s a loving family, a job promotion, fun hobbies—the less your brain is stimulated by that emotion.
Research shows a year after winning the lottery, people are no happier than they were before. On the other hand, we are able to work our way back to a level of acceptance after tragedy or heartbreak.
Though hedonic adaptation can lift you up when you need it, it can also ease you into a comfortable rut, taking the people and life you love for granted.
It’s like having your house thermostat always set to 65 degrees Fº. You can live with it, but maybe you’d be more comfortable at 72 degrees—where you feel the constant warmth of your family, friends and life.
Practicing gratitude raises your happiness setting. Here are four FISH! Philosophy tips to increase gratitude:
Be There: Let the feeling sink in
As noted in a previous FISH! blog, your brain is wired to place negative experiences into long-term memory much more easily than positive ones. That’s why it’s important to look for positives, to level the playing field where happiness and fulfillment compete with disappointment and anger.
When you encounter something you are grateful for—a child’s smile, a sunset, a feeling of accomplishment—hold onto it for 20 to 30 seconds. Be There for yourself. Let your face relax. Your brain needs that effort or the feeling will quickly pass, leaving that space in your memory to be replaced by an unpleasant event that sticks like Velcro.
To find more positives, take a few minutes at the end of the day to write two or three good things that happened to you. They could as small as a text that made you laugh or a song on the radio. Upon reflection, your day might have been better than you thought.
Play: Embrace new perspectives
To nurture gratitude, find it in new places. Notice good things that surprise you, like a result you didn’t expect. Explore new experiences with family and friends. Take on new challenges at work. Break your routines.
Consider new perspectives. When we notice what other people are going through, seeing through their eyes, it helps us realize what we have. And if we are struggling, we at least understand we’re not alone.
While it may seem a bit strange, focusing on endings can build gratitude. A study showed college students who contemplated what they would miss after graduation were more involved in activities and happier than students who never thought about it.
Reflecting on painful experiences can bolster gratitude. Life inevitably leaves scars, but scars show we have healed stronger than ever. Honor yourself and love the wise, resilient person you are because of them.
Make Their Day: To feel grateful, be grateful
Most Americans say they don’t receive meaningful recognition at work. They may be commended for performance and results, but they also want to know they are valued for who they are.
When you recognize someone, don’t just call out what they did, but the motivation behind the action—in other words, who they were “being”. Thank them for the qualities you see them bring to work every day, such as enthusiasm, attention to detail or perseverance. Show that you value the diverse strengths and backgrounds they bring to your team.
Learn how your colleagues like to be thanked. Some may enjoy being recognized at a public meeting or celebration, while others may just want a private word. Almost everyone appreciates a hand-written thank you note.
Look for the small contributions that make a big difference, such as employees who fill in for coworkers, bring treats or decorate the office for holidays.
Acts of kindness, listening or sharing a laugh are great ways to show gratitude. Healthy relationships need at least a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions.
Choose Your Attitude: Take control.
Gratitude works best when it’s genuine. It shouldn’t be used to mask pain or accept an unacceptable situation. Trying to find ways to be grateful in an abusive or toxic relationship is not helpful. Taking steps to improve the situation or, if necessary, to leave is the better response.
Gratitude helps us see the entire picture of our lives. Sometimes when we are fixated on the negative, we think we have no control and can’t change. Actively looking for the good things in our lives reminds us we deserve happiness.
You can choose your response to what your life gives you—and what life throws at you. Gratitude reminds you there are things in your life worth cherishing, fighting for and, sometimes, changing.