As a coach, it pains me to admit that I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the New Year. I love the idea of seizing the opportunity to set goals and end bad habits, but I find it hard to summon up any willpower or motivation when it’s -2° outside and dark at 4pm. On the assumption that I’m not alone in feeling this way, I would like to offer an alternative way to take advantage of New Year momentum to live a better life.
What if I told you that, this January 2022, you could put in place a tried-and-tested strategy for boosting your happiness and wellbeing? What if you started practicing gratitude?
An attitude of gratitude
The importance of feeling – and showing – gratitude is central to our notion of a polite and harmonious society, and has long been encouraged in civilizations across the world. Most religions stress the importance of giving thanks – to our deity/ies, to Mother Nature, to each other. Parenting books remind us that if we want our children to say please and thank you, we have to set an example. Etiquette manuals instruct us that sending a thank-you note when we have been a guest in someone’s home is still good form, even in the age of the quickie thank-you text.
Equally, the idea that gratitude can have a significant impact on wellbeing and a positive effect on our lives is in no way new; academics like Robert Emmons have been researching its potential for decades. However, the more recent trend is the idea that gratitude, far from being simply a feeling that happens to us, can take the form of something we do – an active, conscious practice in one’s life. Practicing gratitude has been found to have multiple benefits for physical health, and people who are consistently grateful have been found to be happier, more energetic, and more hopeful.
Dear diary… thank you!
Journaling is the most common gratitude practice and has been found to have lots of psychological benefits. It offers a moment to step outside your busy life and think about – then commit to paper – all the reasons you have to be thankful. It’s simple: just start with “I am thankful for” or “I am grateful for” and let your mind wander. Steer clear of “I am lucky to have/be…” as that shifts your focus to celebrating your good fortune rather than humbly appreciating your blessings. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
However, like many things that are supposed to do us good, to get optimal benefits from the practice, you have to do it right. You don’t need a special pen or notebook, but research does suggest that actually writing your gratitude journal by hand yields greater benefits than typing or dictating your ideas. In a recent podcast interview, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky also noted that her research has revealed eight to be the optimal number of blessings to list for a happiness boost (she compared that to listing two, four, 16 and 32). Lastly, frequency is important: research also indicates that, on average, writing your gratitude journal once a week is more likely to boost happiness.
Multiplying your gratitude
But what if you don’t like writing, or can barely find time to make a shopping list, let alone fill pages with lyrical thanks for your many blessings? Lucky for you, research also tells us that variety is the spice of life when it comes to gratitude practices, and there are plenty of other methods to try. Here are a few ideas (tried and tested by yours truly):
- Choose a daily activity and tag your gratitude on. I like to practice gratitude as I’m walking to collect my children at the end of the day. I list blessings on my fingers from the time I leave the house to my arrival at the school gates. This refocuses my mind and helps me step into the “Mum” portion of the day (which, let’s be honest, can be ironically thankless) feeling more peaceful.
- Say it loud! I like to count my blessings out loud as hearing the words seems to add to their impact. I live in a very quiet area so often combine this with my walk to collect the kids. If you want to keep it more private, what about listing your gratitude in the shower, or while the kettle boils for your morning tea?
- Rock your gratitude. Some people choose a stone or crystal to hold while they recite their blessings before bed. This one doesn’t work well for me as I find it gets me thinking too much just before going to sleep, but many find it soothing and using the rock in your hand as a kind of anchor helps trigger feelings of gratitude through association.
- Write a letter. Expressing gratitude by letter to a specific person (or institution) can be very effective – whether or not you actually mail it! You can even write to people you don’t know or can’t contact – the stranger who held the door this morning, an author whose book made a real impact.
There are myriad ways to practice gratitude on a daily basis. The first step is setting an intention to feel gratitude and making it your attitude to life. Once you’ve done that, opportunities to practice gratitude seem to present themselves naturally. You might start saying grace before meals (thanking God or simply the earth for its bounty).
Perhaps your first question to the kids when they get out of school will become “What did you feel grateful for today?”; or maybe you create a tradition of sharing the things you’re thankful for with your partner over your Friday-night glass of wine.
However you choose to practice gratitude this year, you are certain to feel both the immediate and long-term benefits. Personally, I’ve found practicing gratitude gives me an instant lift and helps re-set my focus on all the good in my life even – in fact, especially – when times are hard. Long term, I’ve also found that I now see things to be grateful for all around me, every day, and I have become more open and spontaneous in voicing my appreciation.
If you cultivate just one new habit this new year, feeling and expressing more gratitude – however you choose to do it – is definitely one with the potential to boost your happiness all year long.