If you learned that gratitude is one of the happiness activities that fit you best, you already have a leg up – that is, you’re already motivated and willing to put in the effort and commitment it takes to become more grateful. How exactly you accomplish this is up to you; what’s needed is simply to select at least one activity from the array of possibilities below.
If you enjoy writing, if you are good at it, or it feels natural to you, then a promising way to practice this strategy is with a gratitude journal – much like that used by my gratitude intervention participants. Choose a time of day when you have several minutes to step outside your life and to reflect. It may be first thing in the morning, or during lunch, or while commuting, or before bedtime. Ponder the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night). One way to do this is to focus on all the things that you know to be true – for example, something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, and your advantages and opportunities. Don’t forget specific individuals who care for you, have made contributions to or sacrifices for you, or somehow touch your life. The results of my laboratory’s gratitude intervention suggested that on average, doing this once a week is most likely to boost happiness, and that’s my recommendation to the majority of people. However, on average means that some individuals – and those may include you – may benefit most from doing this strategy on an entirely different timetable, perhaps even daily or three times a week or twice a month. You need to determine the ideal timing tailored to your lifestyle and disposition. (See Chapter 10 in The How of Happiness for more about timing.)
Paths to Gratitude
The particular means by which you go about counting your blessings will depend on your individual personality, goals, and needs. Instead of writing, some of you may choose a fixed time simply to contemplate each of your objects of gratitude and perhaps also to reflect on why you are grateful and how your life has been enriched. Others may choose to identify just one thing each day that they usually take for granted and that ordinarily goes unappreciated. Alternatively, some may want to acknowledge one ungrateful thought per day (e.g., “my sister forgot my birthday”) and substitute a grateful one (e.g., “she’s always been there for me”).
Friends and family can also help foster your appreciation. One idea is to procure a gratitude partner with whom you can share your blessings list and who prompts and encourages you if you lose motivation or simply forget. Chapter 10 describes the power and potential of social (buddy) support in greater detail. Another idea is to introduce a visitor to the things, people, and places that you love. Show off your comic book collection, your favorite park, or your favorite niece. Doing this will help you see the ordinary details of your life through another person’s eyes, affording you a fresh perspective and making you appreciate them as though you were experiencing them for the very first time.
Keep the Strategy Fresh
Another important recommendation is to keep the gratitude strategy fresh by varying it and not overpracticing it. My research suggests that variety – the spice of life – is extremely important. (Again, consult Chapter 10 to find out more.) For example, if you count your blessings every single day – in the exact same way, in a nonvarying routine – you may become bored with the routine and may cease to extract much meaning from it. You might instead pause to express gratitude only after particular triggers – for example, after enduring a hardship or when you are most needful of a boost. Or you may choose to write in a journal some weeks, talk to a friend other weeks, and express gratitude through art (photography, collage, watercolor) during other weeks. On the other hand, you may purposefully want to vary the domains of your life on which to focus – for example, alternately counting your blessings with respect to your supportive relationships or work life or past events or your physical surroundings or even to life itself. These techniques will help make the expression of gratitude a meaningful practice, such that it continues to bolster happiness instead of hitting a plateau.
Express Gratitude Directly to Another
Finally, the expression of gratitude may be particularly effective when done directly – by phone, letter, or face-to-face – to another person. If there’s someone in particular whom you owe a debt of gratitude, express your appreciation in concrete terms. Perhaps it’s your mom, favorite uncle, or old friend; perhaps it’s an old coach, teacher, or supervisor. Write him or her a letter now and, if possible, visit and read the letter out loud in person, on either a special day (birthday, anniversary, or holiday) or a random one. Describe in detail what he or she did for you and exactly how it affected your life; mention how you often remember his or her efforts. Some people find it uplifting to write gratitude letters to individuals whom they don’t know personally but who have influenced their lives (such as authors or politicians) or made their lives easier (such as their postal carriers or bus drivers).
A person close to me shared this letter that he had sent to his high school English teacher, more than thirty years after being in her class. I’d like to think that this chapter on gratitude (which he had freshly read) inspired him to write it:
“The main thing I want to tell you is that you were, without question, the most influential teacher I encountered at Deer Park High School, and that I am extremely grateful for the interest you took in me. You seemed to think I had something on the ball, and trust me on this, that was a minority opinion among the school faculty. Your estimation of my abilities, inflated as it may have been, translated into a certain degree of self-confidence that served me well, I think, in the years that followed.
Perhaps more importantly, you treated me – a pretty unsophisticated 17-18 year old – as an adult, and there is nothing on earth more empowering, to a teenager, than that. Even allowing for the fact that the 1970s were very different times than these, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘What was she thinking?'”
These findings reveal just how powerful it is to express your gratitude directly to an important person in your life.
Martin Seligman and his colleagues tested the well-being benefits of expressing gratitude in this way. They investigated a gratitude visit exercise that was completed over the course of just one week. People from all walks of life logged on to the researchers’ Web site and received their instructions there. In the gratitude visit condition, participants were given one week to write and then hand deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had been especially kind and caring to them but whom they had never properly thanked. In other conditions, participants were offered alternative self-guided happiness exercises. Those participants who did gratitude visits showed the largest boosts in the entire study – that is, straightaway they were much happier and much less depressed – and these boosts were maintained one week after the visit and even one month after. These findings reveal just how powerful it is to express your gratitude directly to an important person in your life. It’s an activity that you can assign yourself to do on a regular basis, perhaps mixing the writing of gratitude letters (directed at the same or different individuals) with keeping a weekly gratitude journal.
There will be times, however, when you will choose to write the letter but not to send it. Indeed, in a recent study from my laboratory, we found that simply writing a gratitude letter and not sending or otherwise delivering it was enough to produce substantial boosts in happiness. Participants were asked to identify several individuals who had been especially kind to them over the past several years. Those who spent fifteen minutes once a week (over eight weeks) writing letters of gratitude to these individuals became much happier during and after the study. The happiness boost was especially pronounced if the study participants were particularly motivated to become happier, if the gratitude letter activity fitted their goals and preferences, and if they put extra effort into the writing task.
For one of the homework assignments in my psychology of happiness class, I regularly ask my undergraduate students to compose a gratitude letter. Every year it’s been one of the most potent and moving exercises that they do. Last year, Nicole, one of the best students in the class, described for me the experience of writing a gratitude letter to her mom:
“I felt overwhelmed with a sense of happiness. I noticed I was typing very quickly, probably because it was very easy for me to express gratitude that was long overdue. As I was typing, I could feel my heart beating faster and faster…Towards the end of the letter, as I reread what I had already written, I began to get teary eyed and even a little bit choked up. I think my expressing my gratitude to my mom overwhelmed me to such a point that tears streamed down my face.”
Nicole then recalled the effects the letter had on her:
“Later that week (three days after I initially wrote the gratitude letter), I was sitting in front of my computer writing a paper and I was extremely frustrated. Since I was not having much success with my paper, I felt compelled to open up my gratitude letter. I reread it and even made a few changes. Instantly, I noticed that I had a smile on my face. It was almost strange how fast my mood had shifted. I had not even looked at the letter with the intention of elevating my mood, but rather I was merely bored of my research paper, so I thought I’d just do something else. Similar to my reactions the day I actually wrote the letter, after reading it, I felt much happier and less stressed for the rest of the evening. Overall, I found that the effects of writing such a letter to be quite amazing in that the letter not only elevated my mood, but the changes were lasting.”
In sum, there are multiple ways to practice the strategy of gratitude and it would be wise to choose what works best for you. Select at least one option from this section and give it a go. When the strategy loses its freshness or meaningfulness, don’t hesitate to make a change in how, when, and how often you express yourself.
Spontaneous Gratitude: A Postscript
I am reluctant to reveal this, but, although I wholeheartedly recognize its many rewards, expressing gratitude turns out to be one of the strategies that suit me least. It’s no big deal; each of us will wind up with a list of happiness activities that fit and, unavoidably, a longer list of activities that don’t fit. The important fact is that as much of a platitude as counting blessings is sometimes, it is also incredibly effective, as the scientific evidence shows persuasively. The anecdotal evidence is also hard to disregard; I know many (now happy) individuals who report that becoming grateful changed their lives.
So, this having been said, something that happened during the writing of this chapter took me by surprise. One day, after spending long hours reading through the research on gratitude, I spontaneously wrote an e-mail to all my colleagues publicly thanking our department chair for something he had done. He wrote me back immediately saying how much he appreciated my note. It felt great. And it only hit me later what had occurred: reading about gratitude must have rubbed off, and I had unwittingly written a gratitude letter that day!
Excerpted with the author’s kind permission from The How of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2008).