My friend and esteemed colleague Jason Wachob, who founded Mind Body Green, where I am a regular blogger, just released his new book WELLTH: How I Learned to Build a Life, Not a Resume. I contributed to his book on the topic of gratitude, and I want to share with you this excerpt from Jason’s book.
My friend Dr. Lissa Rankin believes that expressing gratitude can improve your health. It seems that scientific evidence agrees with her, and is conclusive when it comes to mood, outlook, and health; studies have shown happy people live up to 10 years longer than unhappy people. In addition, optimists have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than do pessimists. But how can we become happier and more optimistic in our world view?
In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky points out that 50% of our propensity for happiness is based on a genetic set point; obviously, something we can’t influence very much. 10% is based on life circumstances (such as getting the promotion, finding a forever soul mate, or achieving the creative dream). 40% is “intentional activity” that we can influence through our behavior. This means that we can become up to 40% happier in our lives without changing our circumstances one bit, and one of the key intentional activities is the practice of gratitude.
Research shows that consistently grateful people are happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more helpful, more empathic, more spiritual, more forgiving, and less materialistic. They’re also less likely to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, neurotic, or sick. In one study, a group of participants was asked to name five things they were grateful for every day, while another group was asked to list five things that bugged them. Those expressing gratitude were not only happier and more optimistic; they reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headache, cough, nausea, or acne). Other gratitude studies have shown that those with chronic illnesses experience clinical improvement when practicing regular gratitude.
Severely depressed people who were told to list grateful thoughts daily were found to be significantly less depressed by the end of the study, when compared to depressed people who weren’t asked to express gratitude.
According to Dr. Lyubomirsky, gratitude does the following:
- Promotes savoring of positive life experiences
- Bolsters self-worth and self-esteem
- Helps people cope with stress and trauma
- Encourages caring acts and moral behavior
- Helps build social bonds, strengthen existing relationships, and nurture new relationships (and we know lonely people have twice the rate of heart disease as those with strong social connections)
- Inhibits harmful comparisons
- Diminishes or deters negative feelings such as anger, bitterness, and greed
- Thwarts hedonistic adaptation (the ability to adjust your set point to positive new circumstances so that we don’t appreciate the new circumstance and it has little affect on our overall health or happiness)
Here are some ways that you can practice gratitude:
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
Ponder three to five things you’re currently grateful for (it’s okay if these are mundane things!) and write them down. Data suggests that doing this even once per week may be beneficial. If you find that doing it daily works for you, go for it!
For a heart-opening twist on the gratitude journal, try the “3 Question Journal” developed by Angeles Arrien and taught to medical students and physicians around the globe by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD. At the end of the day, take a moment to think backwards through your day and ask yourself three questions:
- What surprised me today?
- What touched my heart today?
- What inspired me today?
Making the 3 Question Journal a daily practice bench presses your gratitude muscles, increasing your ability to be surprised, touched, and inspired by even the smallest acts of kindness, beauty, and love. Before you know it, your heart gets cracked open, and love starts to spill out all over your life.
2. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Journaling may not be your cup of tea, so you might be better off just training yourself to think grateful thoughts. Try noticing one ungrateful thought you have each day and try switching it around to something for which you can be grateful. For instance if you complain about your daily commute, instead try to be grateful that you have a job.
3. Vary your gratitude practice.
In addition to journaling or thinking grateful thoughts, speak up about what you’re grateful for at dinner time, make art about what you’re lucky to have, but shake it up! We tend to get bored easily, so the practice of gratitude works better when we change how we’re grateful.
4. Express gratitude directly to others.
Call a friend, write a letter, share your grateful thoughts with family members, or speak to a colleague at work. There’s no upper gratitude limit to who you can thank for their contributions to your life.
5. Practice radical gratitude.
[Lissa’s note: This part isn’t in Jason’s book, but it’s been a cornerstone practice for me lately, so I thought I’d add it!] As I described in this blog post about radical gratitude, it’s easy to feel grateful for life’s blessings. But can you find it in your heart to feel grateful for life’s challenges? Can you find the soul growth in the grief, heartbreak, and disappointment? Can you sense how your heart is breaking open when your world falls apart? Can you see how you’re learning to be more compassionate, more humble, more curious, more vulnerable, more forgiving? When you can practice this kind of gratitude, it’s possible to live in a near perpetual state of gratitude for the whole of human life, with its triumphs, tragedies, and soul-shaping experiences that usher us into wholeness. That’s when you earn your PhD in gratitude. And as a side effect, you make your body ripe for miracles.
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