“It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.”
Sheryl Crow may or may not have been singing the praises of gratitude with this line, but it sums up the nature of a gratitude practice pretty nicely. In other words, happiness isn’t striving towards a particular goal- money, a home in a desirable location, admiration-and gaining it.
Happiness is more about looking around at “what you’ve got” - a decent roof over your head, good health, a photo you cherish - and appreciating that you have it in your life.
Practicing gratitude has been found to have numerous psychological and physical benefits, such as improved sleep, increased time spent exercising, and better relationships, both personally and professionally. Gratitude can even have lasting effects on brain function.
Gratitude can reduce feelings of envy and encourages prosocial behaviors such as generosity and empathy. It can also increase optimism and decrease feelings of depression. Expressing gratitude towards others makes them more apt to seek further contact with you, increasing your social network.
When we express gratitude towards our romantic partners, those partners are often more responsive to our needs and feel more positively about the relationship. It’s as though, when you express appreciation for your partner, you are making a deposit in an emotional bank account. You build up relationship equity that both partners can draw from and that makes you both feel more secure.
This might be the easiest method for adding a gratitude practice to your life. Whether you are single, partnered, or have kids, you can implement a gratitude jar into your life. Pick a jar or a decorative box and find a place where everyone can easily reach it. Nearby have slips of paper, plain or fancy, that are also easily accessible. To get everyone in the habit, place it wherever you gather for meals.
Write Down Something Good When it Happens
When something good happens grab a piece of paper, write it down, and drop it in the jar. It can be a big event, like a trip to an amusement park or a vacation, or something smaller, like someone being particularly nice at the grocery store. There’s no rule against writing something about one of your family members and what you appreciate about them.
Choose a time, whether it’s once a month or once a year, to empty the jar and read what everyone wrote. You’ll benefit from the act of writing down what you’re grateful for and you’ll have the added bonus of reliving the positive experience. You can even sneak a peek into the jar when you need a pick-me-up.
Another technique for cultivating your gratitude habit is to keep a gratitude journal. There are a couple of different ways to adopt this habit. You can do it in the morning, whereby you set yourself up to be open to gratitude throughout the day. Some research has demonstrated that writing in a gratitude journal before bed helps you sleep better.
How much to write? Robert Emmons, one of the most preeminent researchers on the benefits of gratitude, argues that more important than how much you write is how detailed you get when you do write. Instead of writing, “I am grateful for my spouse, my child, my parent, my sister, and my friend,” pick one of the people to write about on a given day. Then write 3-5 specific things about that person that make you feel grateful.
Do you need to do it every day? As with developing most new habits and skills, doing it for even a few minutes each day will likely lead to better results than not. Some people, though, prefer to do it once a week. Any day and any way you choose to do it is better than any day you don’t do it, so do what works for you. Just like the gratitude jar, you can go back and revisit your journal to savor the memories and increase your positive emotions.
Let your visual artist come out to play! Spend some time gathering photos or drawing pictures of things to use in your gratitude collage. When you have several, pull out the art supplies. Cut, paste, decorate, and make patterns to display the good things in your life. Make a theme if you want- a treasure chest with jewels, a garden with flowers growing, etc. You can decorate the whole piece or leave some empty space to add more gratitude visuals as you uncover them. Hang your creation where you can see it regularly. The collage will help you celebrate the blessings in your life and remind you to keep up your gratitude practice.
Starting any new habit can be difficult. Actually, starting isn’t the hard part. The hard part is sticking to it. A technique called mental contrasting might be helpful. At the outset, know the benefits of trying this new way of thinking (feeling happier, sleeping better). At the same time recognize that maintaining your new practice may be difficult. Plan for obstacles. What will you do if something interrupts your plans for practicing? Knowing that ahead of time can help you stick with the practice.
It will be worth the effort when you begin to see the positive effects of “wanting what you’ve got.”
Ackerman, Courtney. “The Benefits of a Gratitude Practice,” positivepsychologyprogram.com, April 2017
Carpenter, Derrick. “The Science Behind Gratitude,” happify.com
Emmons, Robert, & McCullough, Michael. “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003