It's that time of year.
What are you grateful for?
It's a hard question to answer. Because there's so much to be grateful for. But I'm not going to sit here and yap about the things I'm grateful for. I'm going to yap at you about why gratitude is an essential skill to master.
Because... it is a skill. And you can be good at it, or you can be bad at it.
So, What Is Gratitude Anyway?
First, let's take a look at THE BIG FIVE PERSONALITY TRAITS:
A bunch of nerds came up with these five domains of personality, and then even more nerds lined these up to determine the personality correlates of gratitude. Two separate sets of nerds did the same study and found very similar results: that grateful people tend to be more extraverted, agreeable, open and conscientious, and are generally less neurotic.
So does that mean those of us who are neurotic aren't grateful??
Well, no. It doesn't. But kinda. It's not that cut-and-dry.
The correlation is there, though, and so are others. A study done of the impact of "thankfulness" resulted in significantly less major depression, anxiety, phobias, bulimia, and dependence on substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs.
Studies on Vietnam veterans with PTSD revealed that veterans with fewer PTSD symptoms or milder symptoms were better at gratitude than those veterans with more severe PTSD. This type of study was repeated with survivors of the World Trade Center attacks: adults and children with a better ability to be grateful for things experienced better post-trauma recovery.
Okay, That's Cool, But What Do We DO About It?
Gratitude interventions! I love it. These interventions basically fall into 3 areas: grateful thoughts, grateful writing, and grateful actions.
We'll start with the most effective one: grateful writing! Gratitude lists require you to regularly make lists of things you're grateful for. Boom. Easy peasy. This is the intervention that's been studied the most by the science nerds, because it's very common and very easy to do.
Moving on to grateful thoughts. Grateful contemplation is like gratitude lists, but without the writing. The positive boost effect is immediate, but often doesn't last.
Finally, grateful actions. People who engage in behavioral expressions of gratitude, such as thanking someone in person, have been studied with immediate mood boosts, but the long-term positive effects aren't consistent across studies.
So, gratitude lists. What makes them so powerful??
Vanessa van Edwards is a confidence researcher (basically!), and talks about the power of words. Volunteers in a study were blindfolded, and the researcher handed them a cup and said, "This is strawberry yogurt. Please tell me your opinion of this strawberry yogurt." The volunteers ate the yogurt and overwhelmingly agreed that, yes, this was dang fine strawberry yogurt.
Just one problem... the yogurt was chocolate, not strawberry.
What the what?
By priming the volunteers' brains with the idea that what they were going to taste would be strawberry, the volunteers' brains interpreted the chocolate taste as strawberry. By using words to prime the brain into a certain expectation, we can actually change our perception of stimuli.
How does this help us be grateful?
Words have power.
They're magical that way. Seriously. You can change your brain, and the brains of others, with nothing but words. If you're using those powerful words to focus on gratitude, you can change the way your brain perceives stimuli.
If you come home from kind of a crappy date, and you write in your gratitude journal, "Ugh the date sucked and I hated it and I never want to date again," that's going to stick in your brain in a certain way. Those words prime your brain for later, and the next time a date situation pops up, your brain is going to say, "BLEH NO."
But if you write in your gratitude journal, "The person I went on the date with was awkward AF, but I had the best dessert I've ever tasted," that's going to stick in your brain in a different way. A more positive way. Your brain is primed to say to the next date situation, "Hey even if this person is weird and awkward, we can still have something tasty for dessert!"
So this Gratitude Season, work on priming your brain to look for the good! Here are three easy steps to do just that!
Get a journal.
It doesn't have to be fancy. Even if it's just a lined pad, make it something you can use to keep all your gratitude reflections together. Let's be honest right now though. If you're a writer, you have a few extra journals lying around that you've been looking for a reason to use. Well, this is that reason! Grab it now!
Yes, you're writing this by hand.
There are psychological benefits to writing things by hand, especially writing gratitude lists by hand! Your word retention increases, for one, so you're more likely to remember the things you were grateful for. Writing on paper sets this activity apart as something special, because you probably type a lot of stuff, right? Well, this is special. This isn't any old stuff. Write it by hand, and your brain will tag it as something unique, rather than just another thing you're writing.
Keep your list short.
Especially at first, just start with one thing a day! At the end of your day, flip your journal open to the next blank page and write a single thing you're grateful for. It doesn't have to be something huge, either. It can be something as simple as, "I'm grateful I remembered to put my clothes in the dryer last night so I had clean socks this morning." You can increase the number of grateful items as you like, but don't feel like you need to. Keep this low-pressure and enjoyable!
And that's it!
So let's try gratitude, okay? Grab your extra journal you have on your bookshelf (I know it's there!) and write down something you're grateful for. I'll go first! I'm grateful you joined me on my blog to read this post!
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Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J., and Geraghty, A.W.A. (20100. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(2010). 890-905. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005