During the holiday season, there’s a distinct emphasis on giving thanks for all that we’re fortunate enough to have. But in trying to make the season festive, we often put unnecessary stress on ourselves and each other. As a result, we might not feel as merry as we could.
That’s actually true of Americans year-round. According to a recent survey, only 33% of those questioned were able to say they were happy in their daily lives. And while it’s impossible to feel like you’re filled with joy all the time, the fact that so few of us can honestly say we’re happy on the average day is nothing short of alarming. That’s not to say we’re not trying. But as it turns out, complicated efforts to improve our moods might be better spent by focusing on more simple endeavors: namely, expressing what we’re grateful for.
The Benefits of Gratitude, According to Science
According to a 2016 brain imaging study conducted by researchers at Indiana University, those subjects with depression or anxiety who were given a gratitude exercise (i.e., writing letters of thanks to important people in their lives) were shown to experience prolonged feelings of gratefulness in the long term. The results have prompted experts to predict that practicing gratitude on a regular basis allows the brain to express those feelings spontaneously down the road. By being thankful for what you have, you can literally condition your mind to be more satisfied with your life—thus increasing your happiness levels.
Even more astounding is that UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center supports the claim that your brain literally changes when you express your gratitude. According to researchers there, expressing one’s gratitude actually changes the molecular structure of the brain and improves the functionality of gray matter—thus making us healthier and happier overall. Other studies have found that keeping gratitude journals made participants 25% happier than those who did not journal; that those who completed gratitude exercises lent more support to their loved ones than those who did not partake in such tasks; and that people who expressed daily gratitude slept better and experienced decreased levels of anxiety and depression.
3 Foolproof Ways to Practice Gratitude
Now that you have a better understanding of the benefits that the expression of daily gratitude can provide, you might be wondering about some effective ways to actually embrace that practice yourself. It’s easy to feel silly about it at first or think that trying out a gratitude exercise isn’t making much difference. But if you give it some time and trust the process, you’ll probably find that you have a keener awareness of the positives in your life and that you’re consistently happier overall. Here are three ways to get started.
1) Put it down on paper! Putting pen to paper is one of the easiest ways to express your innermost thoughts. You can keep a journal of one thing you’re thankful for when you wake up and another before you go to sleep. You could also keep a list of what you’re thankful for each day and hang it up somewhere you’ll view it often. Alternatively, you can keep a gratitude jar that you contribute to every day or put up sticky-notes of thankfulness on your mirror. Writing gratitude letters to those who play an important role in your life can be impactful, too. Remembering to do this daily or on at least a regular basis can help you to make gratitude an automatic habit, allowing you to recognize all you’re fortunate enough to have without racking your brain for positive factors in your life.
2) Think about the gift of the present. We tend to get wrapped up in past mistakes or future worries—and these can both do a number on your mental and emotional well-being. You probably can’t adequately appreciate the little things to be thankful for if you’re not paying attention in the present. Vowing to appreciate what’s happening in the here and now while letting go of thoughts that are outside of your control can allow you to feel more satisfied with your life. You’ll release the burden of all those worries and appreciate the small things more completely: a gorgeous sunset, a message from a friend, the song of a bird outside your window, or the cozy sensation of drinking a hot cup of tea while wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket. We miss so much of what’s actually happening when we’re caught up in what’s happened or what’s about to happen. But staying present can allow you to feel happier and more grateful in general.
3) Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. It’s tough to practice daily gratitude if your physical space is cluttered. If your home is disorganized and filled with junk, your brain will probably feel that way, too. To clear out the unnecessary stuff from your head, you may actually need to clear out your space. Take stock of all your belongings and honestly assess whether they bring you feelings of joy. If they don’t, it’s time to donate them to someone else who might need them. If they do, display them purposefully in a place that will either make your life easier or make you feel happier. Not only will you feel great about giving your unwanted items to a charity or even to a friend, but you’ll probably feel more at ease in your space and can more clearly say that you’re grateful for these items and the purpose they serve in your life.
Set Yourself Up for Success
If you aren’t yet accustomed to expressing daily gratitude, you aren’t alone. It probably won’t feel natural right away—though you may notice some life improvements sooner than you’d think. By devoting yourself to giving thanks for what’s important in your life each day, you should eventually be able to rewire your brain to be happier and healthier in the long term.
*Matt O’Grady studied Psychology in college at Hofstra University and has worked in marketing for the last 25 years. In addition to Matt O’Grady Coaching, he owns and operates the Digital Marketing Company HarmoniaMedia.com and is the author of Living Gratitude: A Simple Path to Happiness.