While counting your blessings won't solve everything, being thankful for the small stuff — scoring the perfect parking space or savoring a glass of wine — can have a surprisingly big effect on your happiness.
Here, therapist Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD, president and clinical director of Westchester Group Works and author of Free Your Child from Overeating: A Handbook for Helping Kids and Teens, breaks down why gratitude is so beneficial for your mind and body. She also shares simple, highly effective strategies to develop and cultivate this life-affirming, healthy habit.
The Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude has long been connected to stress reduction. "When we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic, or calming part of the nervous system, is triggered, and that can have protective benefits on the body, including decreasing cortisol levels (i.e. stress hormones) and increasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel positive," Maidenberg says.
"By reducing stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety" and increases your ability to cope with stress, she adds.
In effect, focusing on the positive helps to condition and retrain your brain to filter out negative ruminations. "Through merely acknowledging and appreciating the little things in life, we can [learn] to handle present circumstances with more awareness, a broader perception and fewer feelings of apprehension," Maidenberg says.
6 Ways to Cultivate More Gratitude
If you're a glass-half-empty type, don't fret: "Gratitude is something you can learn if it does not come innately," Maidenberg says.
Here are six things you can try to promote more positivity, grow more gratitude and reap the mental benefits.
1. Write Thank You Notes
"When we give and receive thank you notes, our brain is automatically redirected to pay attention to what we have, producing intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present," Maidenberg says.
In fact, just jotting down your appreciation produces a positive physical response. "At the neurochemical level, gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which manage our emotions, anxiety and immediate stress responses," Maidenberg explains.
This feel-good reaction may help, in part, to explain why people experience greater meaning in life when writing notes of gratitude, as researchers noted in a June 2015 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Plus, by expressing your appreciation to another, you can strengthen and nurture your bond, per Harvard Health Publishing, and that social connection plays a huge part in happiness and finding purpose in life, according to UC Berkeley.
Maidenberg recommends choosing a designated day each week to write a thank you note to someone. "It's nice to make it on a Friday, after you're able to effectively pause and reflect on the week ahead," she says.
2. Dish Out Compliments
We all know that receiving a compliment feels good, but giving praise can be just as rewarding.
That's because in order to offer a compliment, we must first notice and appreciate the good in others. And the more we do it, the more positive things we'll see in those around us and in the world in general. In other words, it helps us develop optimism.
When giving a compliment, always focus on someone’s specific trait or behavior and communicate that explicitly and directly, Maidenberg says. For example, you may say, “Jill, you are so thoughtful and caring. I really felt validated when you followed up with me and asked how my grandmother was feeling. I appreciate you and our friendship.”
3. Start a Gratitude Journal
Keeping a specific space — like a journal or a note on your phone — to express your appreciation is key for developing a daily gratitude practice. As a matter or fact, people who regularly incorporate some form of gratitude — like journaling — into their regular routine report increased happiness levels, according to May 2017 meta-analysis in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
So, jot down everything that fills you with joy — from your loving partner to that great cup of coffee you brewed this morning. No thankful thought is too small or insignificant.
Maidenberg recommends writing an entry at the same time each day, say, before bedtime, to reinforce your journaling habit. If you need a little inspiration, you can buy a gratitude journal that comes with pre-made mindful prompts, she says. Having a different prompt each day helps to keep the process varied, interactive and engaging.
Journaling with a partner, a child or a friend can also be a meaningful experience, Maidenberg says, and it ups the accountability factor and thus may increase your chances of sticking with the practice.
4. Do Something Nice for Someone
Helping others may actually help us find more happiness.
The same June 2015 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who engage in more altruistic acts report feeling a greater sense of purpose. That is, doing kind things for other people enhances meaning in our own lives. That's why we should learn to give consistently and continually and not just during an occasion, holiday or when someone does something nice for us, Maidenberg says.
Whether big or small, regularly doing good deeds — from babysitting a friend's toddler to volunteering to donating money to a worthy cause — can help bring you more happiness and fulfillment.
5. Slow Down and Take Notice
"Stop and smell the roses" sounds like a cliché, but it's also sage advice for fostering satisfaction in your daily life. Think about it: How can we appreciate all the positive things going on around us when we're moving at warp speed?
By hitting the brakes, we can learn to recognize and savor the good. The best way to do this is through practicing mindfulness, Maidenberg says. From meditation and guided imagery to yoga and tai chi, there are a variety of mindfulness-based activities at your disposal.
But you can also be mindful in small, unstructured ways every day. For example, instead of mindlessly walking to check your mailbox, mindfully go for a slow, leisurely stroll, paying attention to what you are seeing, hearing and smelling outside.
Similarly, something as routine and mundane as bath time can be another opportunity for mindfulness. As you shower, observe the physical sensations, noticing the feeling of water cascading down your body. Being present helps you see the little things that can bring you joy.
6. Quit Comparing
Nothing stunts our sense of gratitude like comparing ourselves to others. It's easy to forget about our blessings — and lose perspective — when we measure ourselves against someone who we deem smarter or more successful. "Comparisons remind us how we 'should' or 'ought' to be" and "often leave us feeling insecure, less than and deflated," Maidenberg says.
When you fall into the comparison trap, she recommends "reciting the word, 'comparing' and then gently, non-judgmentally and compassionately bring[ing] yourself" back to the present moment.
You might also ask yourself, "Who is my best self?" This may help to keep your focus on you — and your positive attributes that make you grateful — versus fixating on other people and what you don't have.
Is This an Emergency?
- The Journal of Positive Psychology: “Prosociality Enhances Meaning in Life”
- UC Berkeley: “Can Helping Others Help You Find Meaning in Life?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier”
- Basic and Applied Social Psychology: “Using Gratitude to Promote Positive Change: A Series of Meta-Analyses Investigating the Effectiveness of Gratitude Interventions.”