Magazine article USA TODAY

Cultivating the Art of Gratitude

Magazine article USA TODAY

Cultivating the Art of Gratitude

Article excerpt

GROUNDBREAKING research has shown that, when people regularly cultivate gratitude, they experience a multitude of psychological, physical, interpersonal, and spiritual benefits. Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait--more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and gratitude as a discipline protects us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health. Many of these effects are quantifiable.

Consider these eye-popping statistics: when a person keeps a gratitude journal, that individual is 25% happier, sleeps one-half hour more per evening, and exercises 33% more each week compared to those not keeping these journals. Hypertensives can achieve up to a 10% reduction in systolic blood pressure and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20%. Experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism.

We also have found that, when people experience gratitude, they feel more loving and forgiving--and closer to God. Dozens of research studies with diverse participant groups also have revealed that the practice of gratitude leads to increased feelings of energy, alertness, enthusiasm, and vigor; success in achieving personal goals; better coping with stress; a sense of closure in traumatic memories; bolstered feelings of self-worth and -confidence; solidified and secure social relationships; generosity and helpfulness; prolonging of the enjoyment produced by pleasurable experiences; improved cardiac health through increases in vagal tone; and a greater sense of purpose and resilience.

The evidence on practicing gratitude contradicts the widely held view that all people have a set point of, or predisposition to, happiness that cannot be reset. The luck of the genetic draw has some of us happier and some of us less happy from the start. However, the science of happiness has taught us that we can do a great deal about our sense of happiness, regardless of our set point. In some cases, people have reported that gratitude led to transformative life changes. All in all, science confirms that the life-giving practice of gratitude broadens our lives by enabling healing of the past, providing contentment in the present, and delivering hope for the future.

I pioneered the use of gratitude journaling as a research methodology in which people counted their blessings by systematically putting their thoughts and feelings down on paper. This powerful exercise encourages reflection that allows us to regain perspective and a sense of control over the events that move through our lives. Several hundred persons between the ages of eight and 80 now have practiced gratitude journaling under controlled experimental conditions and we have scientific evidence of what works best.

It might be argued that techniques such as gratitude journaling are so commonplace (and perhaps so patently obvious) that they require no further explanation. Some even think that counting blessings is a corny or cheesy activity. I would beg to differ, based on a number of not-so-obvious and even counterintuitive findings that recently have been reported in the gratitude literature. Consider the following:

* Occasional gratitude journaling (e.g., twice weekly) boosts well-being more than the regular practice (e.g., every day) of counting blessings. Sometimes less is more. You avoid gratitude fatigue this way.

* Remembering one's sorrows, failures, and other painful experiences is more beneficial to feeling grateful than is recalling only successes. …

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