In the words of the famous Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero:
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all the others.”
The ancients knew about gratitude. We know about gratitude today, too. It’s one of the first big lessons we learn when we’re kids. Our parents tell us to be grateful for what we have. They tell us to be grateful for our friends and our extended family. When we complain about small things, they remind us to appreciate the big things. We learn to appreciate the fact we have a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, a school where we learn, and people to share the ups and downs of life with.
The ancients are right. Our parents are right. All the contemporary self-help gurus who extoll the benefits of gratitude are also right. From Oprah Winfrey to Deepak Chopra to Ellen Degeneres, those who recommend taking time every day to recognize the gifts in our lives understand that in doing so, we improve our lives and the lives of others.
If Cicero, the ancients, your parents, and Oprah et al haven’t convinced you about the importance of gratitude, we’ll offer a slightly more homespun take on gratitude from another American icon:
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
Willie says it plainly for us: gratitude means counting your blessings.
We couldn’t agree more.
Gratitude is important – that much is certain.
But what exactly is gratitude?
The Definition of Gratitude
About twenty years ago, researchers Robert Emmons (University of California, Davis) and Michael McCullough (University of Miami) recognized that although the subject of gratitude was well-known, and the benefits of gratitude were lauded by sources far and wide – from major religious texts to grandma’s folk wisdom – there had been very little scientific research conducted on gratitude.
In a paper published in 2003, they wrote:
“Despite widespread exhortations, the contribution of gratitude toward health, well-being, and overall positive functioning remains speculative and without rigorous empirical confirmation.”
To remedy this situation, and to determine whether gratitude yields quantifiable benefits for those who experience it, they conducted a series of studies to measure the effect of gratitude on mood, health, stress, and overall wellness.
To do that, they had to define exactly what gratitude means.
Based on the research they found, they determined that gratitude is an emotional state derived from a “two-step cognitive process.” Here are the steps that allow an individual to arrive at the emotional state known as gratitude:
Step 1: Recognize the existence of a positive outcome.
Step 2: Recognize the origin of the positive outcome is external.
Simple enough. To experience gratitude, we understand something positive in our lives comes from something other than ourselves.
It’s simple – but as the research conducted by Emmons and McCullough show – it’s also incredibly powerful.
The Benefits of Gratitude
The research effort they initiated in 2003 continues to this day. Emmons is now the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and a primary contributor to the Greater Good Magazine published by the University of California, Berkeley.
According to Emmons and his colleagues, the data on gratitude shows that it benefits people in three primary ways: physical, psychological, and social.
Compared to people who don’t practice gratitude, people who practice gratitude report the following physical benefits:
- They exercise more and take better care of themselves
- Their immune systems are stronger
- They have lower blood pressure
- They sleep longer and better
- They’re less bothered by aches and pains
Compared to people who don’t practice gratitude, people who practice gratitude report the following psychological benefits:
- They experience more optimism and happiness
- They experience more joy and pleasure
- They’re more alert, alive, and awake
- They have higher levels of positive emotion, in general
Compared to people who don’t practice gratitude, people who practice gratitude report the following social benefits:
- They feel less lonely
- They’re more forgiving
- They’re more outgoing
- They feel more generous, helpful, and compassionate
Let’s back up a second, because you may have a question here about what we mean by the phrase practice gratitude. It’s a valid question. If gratitude is an emotion, how do we practice it?
The answer is closer than you think.
How to Practice Gratitude
Look at it this way: as a verb.
For instance, love and fear are emotions. We feel love and we feel fear.
Love and hate are also verbs: we love things and we fear things.
We feel gratitude. But we don’t gratitude things – do we?
That doesn’t sound quite right, because in the English language, gratitude is a noun only. That’s why we say we practice gratitude: so we can harness its active properties, and recognize its transformative power.
Saying we practice gratitude is almost the same as saying express appreciation, except that practicing gratitude can happen inside yourself, as an emotion, and doesn’t require any explicit action. However, there are tried and true ways to practice gratitude explicitly, as an action – and when you do these things consciously, you experience the benefits of gratitude we discuss above.
Here are five ways you can practice gratitude in your daily life:
Gratitude in Action: Five Practical Practices
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
Every gratitude advocate starts here, with a gratitude journal. This is a way to identify the big things in your life for which you’re grateful. To start, get a blank notebook, set aside one day a week, and write down five things you’re thankful for. Update the list every week to help keep you grounded in the present, appreciative of the past, and hopeful for the future.
Count your blessings. This is an internal version of your gratitude diary. And yes – this is exactly what your parents told you to do when you were little. Here’s the good news: it works even better as an adult. If you count your blessings every day as an adult, it can help you stay calm, even-keeled, and happy. Parents typically tell kids to count their blessings when they’re being ungrateful. If you proactively identify and count your blessings, then you don’t need the admonishment: you already live in the solution.
2. Write thank you notes.
Take the time to write old-fashioned thank you notes to people you appreciate, people who help you when you need help, or people you simply think need to hear a happy word or two. The act of thanking someone can boost your mood – and you may even get a thank you in return. A thank you for a thank you might just create a virtuous cycle that keeps going.
4. Say “Please” and “Thank You.”
If you’re out in public – or even on a video call – express gratitude for the people around you by offering them fundamental respect and kindness. When you say please to someone – whether they’re about to make you a sandwich at the deli or they’re about to do something more consequential – you honor them as a human. When you say thank you, you do the same thing. You afford them the same kindness and respect that you appreciate from others. Like writing thank you notes, saying please and thank you creates a virtuous cycle.
5. Meditate and/or pray.
Time spent in silent, solitary, mindful reflection can help you focus on the present moment and teach you to accept yourself and the circumstances of your life without judgment. This, in turn, reduces stress and increases overall wellness. Prayer works in a similar way: when spiritual or religious people pray or commune with their concept of the divine, they cultivate a deep appreciation for life and all its gifts.
If you’re curious about what gratitude feels like in your life, then try these five things: they work. If you try them and think your teenage child needs to learn how to cultivate gratitude in their life, then please read our upcoming article Practicing Gratitude: Tips for Teens.
Until then – thank you for reading!
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.