“Gratitude is one of those rare things you get more of by giving it away” ~ John Kralik
What’s the first thing you do when you get a Christmas present? Do you try and guess what’s inside by tapping it, feeling it, weighing it in your hands or shaking it? Or do you excitedly rip it open without stopping to think?
Usually at some point, either before or after the ceremonial mutilation of wrapping paper, there would be a ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to you. Saying thank you is second nature to most of us. It’s a social norm, a sign of good manners.
We may say thank you fairly often, but are we practicing gratitude?
As I was randomly trawling the internet one day, I read this: “Have I always been thankful for everything in my life? Of course. But I never practiced gratitude until then.” I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. The article was about John Kralik, whose story has inspired many in the business world. He was a lawyer in LA who was struggling. It wasn’t that Kralik was impolite and never said thank you, but he decided to make a deliberate effort to practice gratitude, so he made a resolution to send one handwritten thank you card to a different person every day for a year. As all good stories go, this simple act helped to turn around his business and his relationships.
Kralik’s story demonstrates that expressing our thanks is one part of the greater whole of gratitude.
Gratitude is a broad behavioural skill which has a number of different aspects, including:
(1) understanding individual differences in the experience of gratitude
(2) appreciation of others
(3) a focus on what you have
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviours to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and
(8) positive social comparisons
The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlates with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.
Like mindfulness, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show that gratitude interventions improve self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.
What gratitude does do is open you up to joy by intentionally drawing your focus on to the enriching elements in your life. And, if you express your gratitude to others through things like Thank You cards, then other people will reciprocate! Gratitude is joy gone viral.
It’s easy to start practicing gratitude. You can do what Kralik did and write a thank you note. Of you can do a gratitude journal, which is the best studied gratitude intervention. A gratitude journal simply involves writing something down every day that you’re thankful for. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough.
It doesn’t even have to be written, if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also had a love of and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and then post it on Facebook. She had her moments when she doubted herself, when she struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique (especially after day 300), but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.
So, grow in gratitude and express it in your own unique way, maybe even spreading the joy of gratitude to those around you.
Oh yes, the daily practising of gratitude is one of the things that best keeps me emotionally healthy. One of the best times to do this, in my experience, is sitting down to an evening meal with the family. Each family member says one thing they were grateful for/ enjoyed most that day. The way it is done in my extended family is that someone starts by asking another person at the table what the best part of their day was, they then answer, then ask someone else and on it goes. We started doing this with my nephews and nieces from the age of 2 – every single night – and they absolutely love it. Sometimes the answers are things like “seeing a dead squirrel” or “cheese”, and other times the kids answers are incredibly poignant and loving. Great for the adults too.