Be Grateful to be Happy!
Written by Pamela Carvell, BSc Hons.
There is an increasing belief that gratitude can play a very important role in the mental health of people. But, this is not a modern phenomenon, as the philosopher Cicero said over 2,000 years ago that gratitude is the greatest of virtues.
Gratitude is often defined as being thankful, grateful or appreciative, or acknowledging the good things in life. Psychologists tend to define it in ways such as ‘a response to a gift’ (Roberts 1991) or using terms such as ‘interpersonal exchanges’ (Emmons & Stern 2013). Personally I like the definition from the Harvard Medical School, which incorporates ‘With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives…’
It becomes very interesting when you consider what is the opposite of gratitude. It should be ingratitude or ungrateful, but that implies that it is related to a specific action. And my interest in gratitude lies in it as an internal concept.
So much of the research into, and articles about gratitude focus on the external aspect of it, by which I mean being grateful to others for doing things for you and being grateful for what happens to you. Many of the articles (and I have read many in formally researching this article) claim amazing benefits for gratitude, with one claiming 31 benefits, from boosting your career, to improving your sleep and helping you live longer! But most research has involved very small sample sizes over very short periods of time, and therefore can’t be viewed a conclusive proof. However, it is very easy to believe research such as that conducted by Dr Emmons and Dr McCullough in 2003, which showed that after 10 weeks people who had focussed on gratitude in their lives, were significantly more optimistic in many areas of their lives. And more recent research concluded that people who spent 5 minutes per day on a gratitude journal increased their long-term wellbeing by 10%!
The Significance of Gratitude
I believe that to truly benefit from gratitude you need to look inwards. I say that because if you have ever tried telling someone who is depressed to be grateful for the things they have in their life, it is about as much use as telling them to snap out of it. A life-defining moment for me was when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Nelson Mandela many years ago and he said he was grateful to his captors for 25 years of confinement, because he had the one thing we all wish we had more of….time to think. He truly acknowledged the one good thing he had in his life at that time, when most of us would have struggled to find anything. He genuinely counted his blessings.
I believe you need to look for gratitude within yourself, just as you should look for happiness within yourself, rather than expecting it to come from the actions of others.
The Impact of Social Media
I suspect that Social Media has made huge swathes of the population even less grateful than they previously were, as they are bombarded every second by images of people who look perfect, have perfect partners, friends, family and pets, live in perfect homes, eat perfect meals, go on perfect holidays and do perfect work-outs to keep their perfect physiques.
Showing gratitude is something you do for yourself about yourself, though I am not denying that it is also important to show gratitude to others, in day-to-day life. We all need to learn to count our blessings, because the society norm seems to be to complain and to want what we don’t have, and to be unhappy about what we do have. And yet, if you look at the statistics, life in countries such as the UK and USA has never been better in terms of safety, health, education and living conditions. Shows such as Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, whilst not based on reality, are nevertheless stark reminders that life wasn’t much fun in the past!
Steps to Being Grateful
Gratitude journals are very ‘in’ at the moment. The recently-launched BestMeLife Journals from Calum Best even have a specific section every day for ‘Morning Gratitude’.
Typically the first step in being grateful is the stark realisation of how ungrateful you actually are! Or how many things or people you simply take for granted.
Are you grateful for the country you were born in, or the education you have received, or the upbringing that your parents provided for you, or the ample food that you consume every day, or that you can sleep safely at night, and that you can walk and talk and read?
Think about how you react if the traffic grinds to a halt in front of you on a motorway, and you suspect you could be stationery for quite a time. I have family members who become like raging bulls when this happens. Not me! I am grateful that I am not the one involved in a potentially serious accident ahead of me, I am grateful that I am in my comfortable warm (or cool in Summer) car, with nice music playing, and typically with my dog by my side and hey I even have a mobile phone so I can let people know I’ve been held up, and I have the internet to either get on with some work emails, or have fun on social media. It’s all about how you choose to see the situation, and more importantly what you are going to think about that will impact how you feel. It’s your choice. It has taken me years of practicing ‘feeling grateful’ to be able to react like this.
When you first wake up try thinking of three things that you are grateful for. For many the first will be that they are grateful they have woken up! For many it will be that they have woken up in a safe, comfortable place surrounded by those they love. For others it will be that they have woken up early enough to get breakfast before they dash to work… oh and they are grateful that they will be heading to do a job they love.
The next challenge is to try and think of 3 different things the next day, and 3 different things the following day etc etc. Establish this as a pattern, so that you start every day feeling grateful for things, no matter how basic or small. Each thing is a small piece in the jigsaw of your life, comprising thousands of pieces, and that is beoming one huge picture of gratitude.
The next step in the gratitude process is to start thinking how grateful you are when you finish something, achieve something, arrive somewhere, meet someone, cook something, finish an exercise class, make a difficult phone call etc etc. Whenever I arrive somewhere at the end of a long journey I find it very therapeutic to be grateful for arriving safely, rather than grumbling about my back aching, my clothes being creased, the traffic being bad (or the train overcrowded) and being hungry!
Being grateful eventually becomes a good habit that stays with you for life. And there are an increasing number of studies ‘proving’ the benefits to health and well-being of a life full of gratitude.
How does Gratitude work?
Why do I believe that being grateful makes you happy? Well as a Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming of many years standing, and an avid reader of books about how the brain works, I think it is quite simple.
There are various feel-good chemicals that our body, and especially our brain produces. Amongst these are endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which are all what is called neurotransmitters, which simply means that they make certain things happen. Our body makes these chemicals and they make us feel good. One of the triggers for producing them is participating in exercise and another can be listening to music or relaxing. But, without even moving we can produce these chemicals by simply thinking! The key is to think the right kind of thoughts. And what could be more powerful thank thinking about things that we are grateful for? Thinking about something we are grateful for is likely to encompass many different positive feelings, which will create many positive images in our minds, which is likely to produce a heady mix of feel-good chemicals in our brain and body. And with each thing we are grateful for, there will be more positive feelings and images and even more feel-good chemicals. Contrast that with thinking about what you need to achieve for the rest of the day and the best you may get is a shot of adrenaline to get you going. Fear what the day ahead holds and you will produce a very different cocktail of chemicals.
If you can always look for what there is to be grateful for in any situation, or person, rather than what annoys and frustrates you, you will inevitably feel so much better about everything and towards everyone.
Being grateful takes practice and in the early stages may be very difficult. With the elderly and people who are depressed it can be challenging beyond belief to get them to acknowledge things they should be grateful for, even when you spell them out to them, because you can see those things so clearly, but they can’t. But perseverance pays off eventually and you will make a breakthrough. I believe that ‘gratitude’ could play a huge part in improving the mental health of our society, and one good thing about it is that it is contagious. If you start expressing to those around you the things you are grateful for, you may help them see their lives in a very different light. Being with people who are grateful is far more fun than being with people who grumble!
This article may be produced in part or in full so long as full credit is given to Pamela Carvell and her blog happyhypno.wordpress.com.