Gratitude: turning what we have into enough
Updated: Jan 20
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough” Aesop
I’ve scrolled through Instagram often enough (I know, I know) to have seen thousands of posts relating to gratitude.
At the time of writing, the hashtag #gratitude gets 31.2 million hits on the site, and #grateful gets 47.7m. To be honest, before I’d really thought about gratitude as a concept, many of those posts felt inauthentic and a bit show-offy to me… proclaiming “aren’t I blessed!” in the way that only some Instagram posts can.
So, when I started learning more about the science of wellbeing and positive psychology (firstly via some great training with the University of Pennsylvania and Coursera), I was a bit surprised that so much emphasis was being placed on gratitude as a practice to improve wellbeing. However, it seemed to be being backed up by a robust evidence base (including by notable psychologists like Martin Seligman and Robert Emmons), so I suspended my judgment and decided to look at it with a more open mind.
Gratitude can be defined as “the quality of being thankful” (Oxford Languages). But in what ways does being thankful impact us?
There’s growing evidence (some of which is summarised here) that gratitude is associated with being happier and more satisfied with life. Some of the research shows gratitude as being linked to ‘eudaimonic’ wellbeing; that is, a sense that one’s life is meaningful and purposeful. There’s research that links being thankful to having a lower risk of depression, generalised anxiety disorder and other mental health conditions, and even to lower levels of cell inflammation.
If I’m feeling a bit low, it certainly seems to help if I list out all the things I’m grateful for in my life. I can recall doing this several times in recent years (including a couple of times during the first Covid-19 lockdown), and it seems to have played a key part in helping me re-establish a positive mood. So I’ve long been an advocate for using gratitude as an occasional reminder to appreciate the good things, and put the challenges and frustrations in perspective.
However, many positive psychologists encourage gratitude as an active practice. The most common intervention is probably the “three good things” exercise: noting down three things that you’re grateful for at the end of each day, for a week. We were encouraged to do this as part of the Penn/Coursera course; it felt like a nice thing to do, but I was still a little sceptical it would lead to any actual increase in my wellbeing.
Anyway, I did it. The good things I noted down ranged hugely in importance: from spending time with loved ones, and achieving something valuable and difficult at work, all the way through to a particularly tasty peach (really!) and turning up the volume on a song I Ioved when I was 15. I enjoyed the process of thinking back over my day, and it definitely made me savour and appreciate things in a way I wouldn’t otherwise had done.
However, it was only when I added an extra step that it really clicked for me. For each good thing I noted down, I also captured why I was grateful for it.
I’m grateful for the time spent playing with O [our toddler] this morning… because I noticed he did a funny facial expression I’d not seen before, which made me laugh and gave me another little window into his developing personality and sense of humour
I’m grateful for the pretty sunset this evening… because it gave me a reminder to stop what I was doing, look at the colours and just appreciate the beauty of nature for a while
By including the ‘why’ I was going a little deeper, thinking a little longer and - in my not-at-all-scientific study - it felt like that would be more valuable to me as a way of experiencing the benefits of gratitude.
I kept the practice going daily for about eight weeks, but I must admit I’ve since let it slide. I was feeling a bit guilty about that but have since seen a report that suggests practising gratitude occasionally is better than regularly, if it risks becoming a chore. (I’m quite grateful for that study!)
I captured my gratitude notes on my phone, and it means I can still scroll through them occasionally as a little extra thankfulness boost. Other ideas include writing blessings on slips of paper and putting them in a jar or, perhaps for children, writing them on cut-out leaves, to be hung on a gratitude tree. Martin Seligman advocates writing thank you letters to someone to whom you’re grateful, or reading it out to them in person as part of a gratitude visit.
Finally, how can we bring gratitude into our work and our organisations?
I always like to start reviews and retrospectives with “what went (or is going) well?” which usually elicits some gratitude and helps to start the conversation in an appreciative way. Gratitude can also work well as an ice-breaker for team events, for example, inviting participants to share what’s made them smile today. I’ve not experimented with these yet, but it might be interesting to do the three good things exercise at the end of each workday for a week or run a team exercise to notice the things we take for granted in our
organisations. Last, but not least, by building gratitude into the feedback we give to each other (informally, and as part of performance reviews) we can help reinforce the positive sentiment, and our appreciation for our colleagues.
Who or what you are thankful for today?
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things” Robert Brault
Image by Couleur via Pixabay