The concept of improving one’s well-being by developing gratitude is not new or radical. Age-old wisdom tells us that cultivating gratitude improves our state of mind. For example, an Estonian proverb says, “Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.”
Even so, especially with our fast pace of life, it’s easy to forget. Fortunately, new research reminds us of the value of practicing gratitude. Erin Fekete and Nathan Deichert studied people who used a brief gratitude writing intervention during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that writing down people, places, things, and experiences for which they felt an authentic appreciation provided them with a cushion during stressful times. It helped them cope with uncertainty, reduced their negative thoughts, and helped them create optimism and hopefulness.
Moreover, the researchers compared gratitude-focused writing with simple expressive writing (i.e., creative writing or journaling, but without any focus on gratitude). Although expressive writing is itself well-documented to have positive effects on one’s mental state, in this study, gratitude writing was more effective for the participants than simple expressive writing.
This research confirms my own experience of gratitude. If I’m in a gloomy mood and I pause to conjure up three things I genuinely feel thankful for, I can feel my body react. I feel less tense in my shoulders, my breathe becomes deeper, and I’m able to be more present. I’m also a big fan of journaling, which has gotten me through some rough patches over the years.
Writing Gratitude Down
The gratitude-writing research was conducted during the pandemic, but there’s no reason not to carry the practice forward with us. I know I plan to do so myself in the New Year—both myself personally and in my work with clients. I invite you to join me, using the following steps.
- Carve out some time to reflect on your life and what and who brings your heart joy and ease. It doesn’t have to be a big chunk of time, but it’s best if you can find a space and time when you’re not distracted by your phone or other interruptions.
- Notice how you feel as you think about the people, events, places, or things for which you feel gratitude. Notice how is your body reacts when you focus on them.
- Now, write! I prefer old-fashioned pen and paper for this, but you can write electronically if you prefer. Create a list of whatever makes you grateful.
- Resist the urge to censor or judge your list. Nothing is too small—whether it’s a sliver of a moment of happiness or a nuzzle from a beloved pet, if you’re feeling grateful, it belongs on your list.
Make It a Practice
Writing a gratitude list is a great way to care for yourself, but you will get better results if you develop a practice and do it regularly.
Participants in the research study I described wrote for five to ten minutes every day over a week. The researchers suggest a daily practice, but I would add that making it regular may be more important than doing it daily. I suggest trying it daily for a month and seeing where that gets you. If you miss a day, don’t sweat it; just start anew when you remember. Maybe even express gratitude for remembering to practice.