Expressing our gratitude for the multitude of things in life for which we are thankful but may pass unnoticed in the daily grind of life has the simple and profound effect of shifting our focus from the negative to the positive. Whether or not we fall through our front door all-consumed by the details of what we perceive to have been a ‘bad day’, developing a habit of acknowledging those small things which really did ‘go right’ gives us space to reflect more realistically. Far more than politeness, it seems that acts of kindness and giving thanks for simple pleasures allows us to live abundantly rather than in a state of lack.
What’s more, we can CHOOSE to do so. The simple act of expressing gratitude is a functional discipline, practice-able regardless of the state of our bank balance, or whether we got a seat on the tube. We can train ourselves to develop a habit of joy, and the current evidence suggests this would be in our best interests.
Simply put, gratitude takes a precedent over fear. With mental health issues such as depression now the all-time highest driver of disability worldwide , such a simple exercise could be a powerful tool for anyone facing challenges in their life, both good and bad (and let’s face it, who isn’t?). Saying ‘thank you’ isn’t going to change the status quo, but it may allow us to be a little more ‘carpe diem’. The simple behaviour and change in mindset that develop from a consistent habit, has been shown to have positive benefit on our mental and physical health, sleep, emotional resilience and even spiritual aptitude.
For example, a randomized controlled trial of 293 adults found that participants writing gratitude letters experienced significantly improved mental health than those in alternative groups receiving psychotherapy or a control . There are myriads of studies to suggest that giving and receiving boosts our physical health, including lowering our blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as making us more likely to exercise . Indeed, the extolled list of benefits goes on and on, according to Robert Emmons, expert in Positive Psychology at the University of California, and includes boosting our immunity and reducing social isolation.
The neuroscience of positive psychology is continually developing, but an important thread emerging is that of neuroplasticity, i.e. the idea that we can fundamentally change our brain wiring, for example, through a regular practice of positivity. In doing so, we allow ourselves to feel that seemingly most childlike of emotions, ‘happy’. In this world of pressure and pace, it’s hard to imagine that such a simple thing, requiring minutes from our day, ‘sans WIFI’, can have such a profound effect on our sense of wellbeing.
Positive psychology is bound up in the state of ‘mindfulness’ – that which allows us to be in a state of awareness of our present thoughts, feelings and tensions. Therapeutically practised, it affords us distance from those things which perhaps we would choose NOT to have happened, someone we might prefer not to speak with – such small irritations which if left unchecked can influence our mood and actions over time. By acknowledging these in our process of thanks, we allow ourselves the space to forgive and be present to, life and its tensions, as it unfolds. Further to this, ideas can be explored and processed through processes such as cognitive behavioural therapies, now recommended by NICE for the treatment of anxiety and OCD .
In addition, it’s arguable that by bringing ourselves into a positive state of alignment with what IS, we can express ourselves more fluently instead of focusing on the negative aspects of conversation as a norm. Stephen Covey (of ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’) describes emotional intelligence as ‘an ability to assess, manage and regulate the emotions of yourself and others…’. From a more grateful vantage point, we improve our capacity for engaging with the people around us in a more connected way.
How then, are we best placed to incorporate this potentially transformative technique into our already overcrowded day? Fundamentally, it appears that writing our gratitude list down, is the most effective to way to overflow one’s cup of abundance – it’s not enough to mumble ‘thank yous’ into the wind en route to the bus stop. Pen and paper may suffice, and like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, serves to tangibly separate these vital strands of joy from the conglomeration of other ideas swirling within. People take to journaling, setting an alarm five minutes earlier, or keeping an updated list on a phone memo. Writing a thank you note to another individual (and maybe even giving it) may precipitate warm fuzzy feelings to both author and subject. That said, there’s nothing to be lost by rolling through a mental list of that for which we can be grateful. Perhaps a brief Friday reflection of all ‘that has gone right’ with a trusted colleague or loved one might be a more engaging way to conclude the working week.
It seems that minding our Ps and Qs is far more exciting than we had ever thanked them for. For sure, habits take time to develop and refocus. But the benefits are profound. Try saying thank you today and see where it takes you.
What are 3 things within in the last hour which you are grateful for? Keep it simple. And repeat. You’ll notice the difference.
Mental Health Foundation. Health Statistics: UK + Worldwide. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-uk-and-worldwide
PsychotherRes.2018Mar;28(2):192-202.Does gratitude writing improve mental health of psychotherapy clients?Evidence from RCT.Wong et al.
Int J Psychophysiol. 2006 Nov;62(2):328-36.Social support and ambulatory blood pressure:an examination of both receiving and giving.Piferi et al.
Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults. Clinical guidelines 2011. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg113/chapter/1-guidance