How Can Gratitude Change Your Life?

Do you want more from your life?

More happiness?  Better health?  Deeper relationships?  Increased productivity?

What if I told you that just one thing can make a huge difference in all of those areas?

An Attitude of Gratitude

“What the heck?  Gratitude?  What do you mean?”

When I first started looking into gratitude, I also wasn’t expecting much…

1. Gratitude makes us happier

A five-minute a day gratitude journal can increase your long-term well-being by more than 10 percent.  That’s the same impact as doubling your income!

How can a free five-minute activity compare?  Gratitude improves our health, relationships, emotions, personality, and career.
Sure, having more money can be pretty awesome, but we quickly get used to it and stop having as much fun and happiness as we did at first.

Gratitude makes us feel more gratitude.

This is why a five-minute a week gratitude journal can make us so much happier.  The actual gratitude produced during those five minutes is small, but the emotions of gratitude felt during those five-minutes are enough to trigger a grateful mood.

While in a grateful mood, we will feel gratitude more frequently, when we do feel gratitude it will be more intense and held for longer, and we will feel gratitude for more things at the same time.

In five words – gratitude triggers positive feedback loops.

After repeated exposure to the same emotion-producing stimulus, we tend to experience less of the emotion.  Put more simply, we get use to the good things that happen to us.  This also means that we get use to the bad things that happen to us.  Those who have been disabled have a remarkable ability to rebound – initially, they may feel terrible, but after months or years they are on average they can be just as happy as everyone else if not more.

As human beings, we have resiliency that keeps us motivated to achieve ever greater things.  Complacency with the good we have can also kill our marriage – we get use to our amazing spouse (or kids, or job, or house, or car, or game).  We stop seeing as much positive and start complaining.  Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal.

In all relevant studies, changes occurred slowly.  It took several months of continuous practice for the largest benefits to appear.  This is for two reasons:

  1. Cultivating gratitude is a skill.  After three months of practice, I now have the ability to self-generate slight feelings of gratitude and happiness on command.  With more time and practice, I expect the intensity and duration of the generated feelings to increase.
  2. Gratitude is a personality trait.  Some people have more grateful personalities than others.  Daily gratitude practice can change our personality, but that takes a long time.

2. Gratitude makes people like us

Gratitude generates social capital – in two studies with 243 total participants, those who were 10% more grateful than average had 17.5% more social capital.

Gratitude makes us nicer, more trusting, more social, and more appreciative.  As a result, it helps us make more friends, deepen our existing relationships, and improve our marriage.

3. Gratitude makes us healthier

There is even reason to believe gratitude can extend your lifespan by a few months or even years.

4. Gratitude boosts our career

Gratitude makes you a more effective manager, helps you network, increases your decision-making capabilities, increases your productivity and helps you get mentors and proteges.  As a result, gratitude helps you achieve your career goals, as well as making your workplace a more friendly and enjoyable place to be

I’m not suggesting that criticism and self-focus don’t have a place in the workplace, but I think we’re overdoing it.

According to a research, 65% of us didn’t receive recognition in the workplace last year.

5. Gratitude strengthens our emotions

Gratitude reduces feelings of envy, makes our memories happier, lets us experience good feelings, and helps us bounce back from stress.

6. Gratitude develops our personality

It really does, and in potentially life-changing ways.

If you’re a man, don’t worry; gratitude won’t transform you into a woman.

7. Gratitude makes us more optimistic.

Gratitude is strongly correlated with optimism.  Optimism, in turn, makes us happier, improves our health, and has been shown to increase lifespan by as much as a few years.  I’d say a 5 minute a day gratitude journal would be worth it just for this benefit.

  • In one study of keeping a weekly gratitude journal, participants showed a 5% increase in optimism.
  • In another study, keeping a daily gratitude journal resulted in a 15% increase in optimism.
  • Optimism is significantly correlated with gratitude.  The above studies show that it isn’t just correlation – increasing one’s level of gratitude increases one’s level of optimism.

The act of gratitude is the act of focusing on the good in life.  If we perceive our current life to have more good, we will also believe our future life to have more good.  Optimism is correlated with gratitude because those with an optimistic disposition are biologically more likely to focus on the good (gratitude) than on the bad (personal disappointment, anxiety, etc…).

8. Gratitude reduces materialism

Materialism is strongly correlated with reduced well-being and increased rates of mental disorder.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting more.  The problem with materialism is that it makes people feel less competent, reduces feelings of relatedness and gratitude, reduces their ability to appreciate and enjoy the good in life, generates negative emotions, and makes them more self-centered.

The pursuit of wealth and power has been shown in dozens of studies to be a highly inefficient method of increasing well-being and happiness.  To be sure, if your income doubles you will be slightly happier.  But how much effort do you think is involved in doubling your income?  How many sacrifices are required?  Motivational speakers will tell you that the money is worth the sacrifices.  In many cases and unless the harmony in other areas of your life is maintained, I disagree.

Applying that same level of energy towards strengthening one’s relationships, cultivating compassion and gratitude, and so on much more reliably creates positive, transformative change.

Said differently, material success is not a very important factor in the happiness of highly grateful people.

Materialism flows from two sources: role models and insecurity.

  1. We are inundated with materialistic role models every day: from advertisements which highlight materialistic themes, to celebrity culture which glorifies the rich and frivolous, to business culture in which we are told our dreams should be to be rich and powerful.  Gratitude helps by reducing our tendency to compare ourselves to those with a higher social status.
  2. Those who are insecure, that is, those that have not had their basic psychological needs met (e.g. those who lack confidence, come from a poor background, or had unsupportive parents), are more likely to be materialistic.  Gratitude is an effective strategy for reducing insecurity.  A grateful emotion is triggered when we perceive an act of benevolence directed towards us.   Those who are dispositionally ungrateful are therefore less likely to perceive acts of benevolence, even if they are surrounded by a loving environment.  Flipped around, those who cultivate an attitude of gratitude are more likely to perceive an environment of benevolence, which in turn causes their brains to assume they are in an environment full of social support, which in turn kills insecurity and materialism.

Will gratitude make me lazy?

Those who are more materialistic are more likely to relentlessly pursue wealth.   So while gratitude won’t make you lazy, over your lifetime you may end up earning less money.  You will instead re-focus on other things.  You may, for example, spend time with friends, family, and your hobbies.  That’s a good thing.

Gratitude has caused me to focus less on things that don’t matter, like making money, and more on the things that I do, like spending time with my family and focusing on transforming lives of more and more people and for this being my life purpose.  I think that’s a good thing.

9. Gratitude increases spiritualism

Spiritual transcendence is highly correlated with feelings of gratitude.  That is – the more spiritual you are, the more likely you are to be grateful.

This is for two reasons:

  1. All major religions espouse gratitude as a virtue
  2. Spirituality spontaneously gives rise to grateful behavior

I believe the opposite to also be true, that gratitude spontaneously gives rise to spiritual attribution, helping one feel closer to God or whatever you believe in.

Why does spirituality give rise to grateful behavior?

Many of the sub-traits associated with spirituality are the same sub-traits associated with gratitude.  For example, spiritual individuals are more likely to feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with others, and to believe in inter-connectedness.  Both are prerequisites for feeling gratitude – someone who feels weak connections with others, and who believes in the illusion of self-sufficiency is unlikely to feel gratitude.

10. It makes us less self-centered

I’ll be totally honest, I’m often a self-centered twit similar to most of us and thats just the way we more or less are…  I’m a lot better now than ever before.  What also helped is that I’ve brought gratitude into my life, but I still spend way too much time thinking about myself, and could spend even more time thinking about others.  I expect this to change also because of my compassion and gratitude practices, I am starting to have spontaneous urges to help others.

This is because the very nature of gratitude is to focus on others (on their acts of benevolence).  In this regard, gratitude practice can be better than self-esteem therapy.  Self-esteem therapy focuses the individual back on themselves: “I’m smart, I look good, I can succeed, etc….”

That can work, but it can also make us narcissistic or even back-fire and lower self-esteem in some cases.

11. It increases self-esteem

Imagine a world where no one helps you.  Despite your asking and pleading, no one helps you.

Now imagine a world where many people help you all of the time for no other reason than that they like you.  In which world do you think you would have more self-esteem?  Gratitude helps to create a world like that.

Gratitude does this in two ways:

  1. Gratitude has been shown in multiple studies to make people kinder and more friendly, and that because of that, grateful people have more social capital.  This means that grateful people are actually more likely to receive help from others for no reason other than that they are liked and appreciated.
  2. Gratitude increases your recognition of benevolence.  For example, a person with low self-esteem may view an act of kindness with a skeptical eye, thinking that the benefactor is trying to get something from them.  A grateful person would take the kindness at face value, believing themselves to be a person worthy of receiving no-strings-attached kindness.

12. It improves your sleep

Gratitude increases sleep quality, reduces the time required to fall asleep, and increases sleep duration.  Said differently, gratitude can help with insomnia.

The key is what’s on our minds as we’re trying to fall asleep.  If it’s worries about the kids, or anxiety about work, the level of stress in our body will increase, reducing sleep quality, keeping us awake, and cutting our sleep short.

If it’s thinking about a few things we have to be grateful for today, it will induce the relaxation response, knock us out, and keep us that way.

Yes – gratitude is a (safe and free) sleep aid.

In one study of 65 subjects with a chronic pain condition, those who were assigned a daily gratitude journal to be completed at night reported half an hour more sleep than the control group.

In another study of 400 healthy people, those participants who had higher scores on a gratitude test also had significantly better sleep.  They reported a faster time to sleep, improved sleep quality, increased sleep duration, and less difficulty staying awake during the day.  This is not because their life was simply better – levels of gratitude are more dependent on personality and life perspective than on life situation.

13. Gratitude helps keep you away from the doctor

Gratitude can’t cure cancer (neither can positive-thinking), but it can strengthen your physiological functioning.

Positive emotion improves health.  The details are complicated, but the overall picture is not – if you want to improve your health, improve your mind.  This confidence comes from 137 research studies.

Gratitude is a positive emotion.  It’s no far stretch that some of the benefits (e.g. better coping & management of terminal conditions like cancer and HIV, faster recovery from certain medical procedures, positive changes in immune system functioning, more positive health behavior, etc…) apply to gratitude as well.

In fact, some recent science shows just that – those who engage in gratitude practices have been shown to feel less pain, go to the doctor less often, have lower blood pressure, and be less likely to develop a mental disorder.

How does gratitude improve my health?

The science on how is still unclear.  Here are two ideas:

  • Gratitude reduces levels of stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  Stress, in turn, has been shown to disrupt healthy body functioning (e.g disrupting the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, the immune system, our sleep, etc…).
  • Gratitude encourages pro-health behaviour like exercising and paying attention to health risks.

14. Gratitude helps you live longer

I will be honest with you – by combining the results of a few different studies I’m confident that gratitude can extend lifespan, but no single study as yet has actually proven this claim.

Here is what we know: optimism and positive emotion, in general, have been used to successfully predict mortality decades later.  The optimistic lived a few years longer than the pessimistic.  A few years may not sound like much, but I know when I’m about to die I’d like to have a few more years!

We also know that gratitude is strongly correlated with positive emotion.  So, gratitude –> positive emotion –> an extra few months or years on earth.  With positive psychology research on the rise, I believe we can expect this claim to be rigorously tested within the next five to ten years.

15. It increases your energy levels

Gratitude and vitality are strongly correlated – the grateful are much more likely to report physical and mental vigor.

  • Study of 238 people found a correlation of .46 between vitality and gratitude.
  • Study of 1662 people found a correlation of .38 between vitality and gratitude.  The same study found correlations above .3 even after controlling for the levels of extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and perceived social desirability.  This means that vitality and gratitude are strongly correlated even after considering the possibility that they are correlated because high-energy people and high-gratitude people share personality traits like extroversion in common.

Do people with more energy tend to experience more gratitude, does gratitude lead to increased energy, or is something else going on?

I believe it’s two of those three:

  • People with high levels of vitality tend to have some of the same traits that highly grateful people do, like high levels of optimism and life satisfaction.
  • Gratitude increases physical and mental well-being, which in turn increases energy levels.

16. Gratitude makes you more likely to exercise

In one 11-week study of 96 people, those who were instructed to keep a weekly gratitude journal exercised 40 minutes more per week than the control group.  No other study has yet to replicate these results.  It could be because other gratitude studies testing this effect have been much shorter – in the range of one to three weeks, or it could be because this result was a fluke.

Once again, time will tell – but it would not surprise me if being grateful for one’s health would increase one’s tendency to want to protect it by exercising more.

17. Gratitude helps us bounce back

Those that have more gratitude have a more pro-active coping style, are more likely to have and seek out social support in times of need, are less likely to develop PTSD, and are more likely to grow in times of stress. In others words, they are more resilient.

18. Gratitude makes us feel good

Surprise, surprise: gratitude actually feels good.  We found only 20% of Americans rate gratitude as a positive and constructive emotion (compared to 50% of Europeans).

According to gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, gratitude is just happiness that we recognize after-the-fact to have been caused by the kindness of others.  Gratitude doesn’t just make us happier, it is happiness in and of itself!

That’s no surprise – we idealise the illusion of self-sufficiency. Gratitude, pah!  That’s for the weak.

No, it’s not!  Gratitude feels good, and if the benefits on this page are any indication – gratitude will make you stronger, healthier, and more successful.

Are you afraid to admit that luck, God, family members, friends, and/or strangers have and will continue to strongly influence your life?  I once was – less happy – and also weaker.  It takes strength to admit to the truth of inter-dependency.

19. It makes our memories happier

Our memories are not set in stone, like data stored on a hard-drive.  There are dozens of ways our memories get changed over time – we remember things as being worse than they actually were, as being longer or shorter, people as being kinder or crueler, as being more or less interesting, and so on.

Experiencing gratitude in the present makes us more likely to remember positive memories and actually transforms some of our neutral or even negative memories into positive ones.  In one study, putting people into a grateful mood helped them find closure of upsetting open memories.  During these experiences, participants were more likely to recall positive aspects of the memory than usual, and some of the negative and neutral aspects were transformed into positives.

What’s going on with my memory!?

It’s called cognitive biases.  Here are two great books on the subject: Thinking, Fast and Slow (written by the founder of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman), and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).

20. It reduces feelings of envy

A small bit of jealousy or envy directed at the right target is motivating.  Too much produces feelings of insecurity, materialism, inferiority, distrust, and unhappiness.

How does gratitude reduce feelings of envy?

The personality trait of envy has a correlation of -.39 with the personality trait of gratitude.  In addition, on days when people experience more gratitude, they are also more likely to experience less envy.

This is likely because an attitude of envy and an attitude of gratitude are largely incompatible.  Just like it is impossible to feel optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, gratitude is the act of perceiving benevolence, while envy and jealousy is the act of perceiving inadequacy.  Benevolence and inadequacy cannot be completely perceived at the same time.

21. Gratitude helps us relax

Gratitude and positive emotion, in general, are among the strongest relaxants known to man.  I was having trouble sleeping a few nights ago because I was too stressed and couldn’t relax.  I’ll be honest, for the few minutes that I was able to hold feelings of gratitude I almost fell asleep, but holding feelings of gratitude is hard!  In this case, too hard – I ended up getting out of bed.

Gratitude may be just as or even more effective than relaxation methods such as deep breathing, but because it is also more difficult, is unfeasible as an actual relaxation technique.  Think of it like tea – one or two cups help you relax – three of four make you want to empty your bladder.  But it could just be me.  Perhaps you’ll find practices of gratitude more natural and easy.

22. Gratitude makes you friendlier

Multiple studies have shown that gratitude induces pro-social behavior.  Keeping a gratitude journal is enough to make you more likely to help others with their problems and makes you more likely to offer them emotional support.

Why?

There are two main reasons:

  1. Gratitude helps us perceive kindness, which we have a natural tendency to want to reciprocate.  Without the feeling of gratitude, we may not recognize when someone is helping us (the same way anger lets us know when someone is trying to harm us)
  2. Gratitude makes us happier and more energetic, both of which are highly linked to pro-social behavior.

23. It helps your marriage

I am happily married and also from what I’ve heard, read, and seen, one-way marriages start to suffer is that when the passion starts to fizzle, the partners become less appreciative and naggier.

Scientists have put numbers to our intuition and experience, creating an appreciation to naggy ratio.  More formally called the Losada ratio, it divides the total number of positive expressions (support, encouragement, and appreciation) made during a typical interaction by the number of negative expressions (disapproval, sarcasm, and cynicism).

When the ratio was below .9, that is there were 11% more negative expressions than positive expressions, marriages plummeted towards divorce or languishment.  Those marriages that lasted and were found satisfying were those with a positivity ratio above 5.1 (five positive expressions to each negative).s1

Building regular practices of gratitude into your marriage is an easy but effective way of raising your positivity ratio.

Correlation or causality?

Does the positivity ratio actually change the dynamics of a marriage, or does it simply reflect underlying happiness or conflict?  Would ‘faking’ a higher positivity ratio actually change the dynamics of your marriage, or would it be the same as faking your income on a survey – it may let you temporarily feel better, but it doesn’t actually make you any richer?

There is a reason to believe it is both.  What we say and how we act becomes who we are.  Faking a smile has been shown to actually make people happier.  But the effect is only so strong.  I believe that for gratitude to truly affect a marriage, it must come from the heart. With enough practice and effort, it can.

 

24. Gratitude makes you look good

In gratitude is universally regarded with contempt.  It’s opposite, gratitude is considered a virtue in all major religions and most modern cultures.  It may not be sexy to be grateful, but people will respect you for it.

Gratitude is not the same thing as indebtedness, which we rightly avoid.  Indebtedness is a negative emotion which carries an assumption of repayment.

Gratitude is not the same thing as weakness.  Weakness is flattery or subservience.

Gratitude is the acknowledgment of kindness with thanks.

It takes big balls to acknowledge that we didn’t get to where we are all on our own – that without others we may never have made it. That’s why, just maybe, gratitude may be sexy too.

25. Gratitude helps you make friends

When I was in college I found it really easy to make new friends. If I hadn’t moved out of NYC it would still be easy – living in a farm town makes it difficult. I’ve found an effective way to start a conversation or move a relationship forward is an expression of gratitude, “thank you for that coffee, it was super delicious.” *wink, wink*

 

26. Gratitude deepens friendships

I have one friend who always deeply thanks me for taking the time to see her. That makes me feel appreciated and that makes me feel good. Wouldn’t it make you feel good too?

27. Gratitude makes you a more effective manager

Effective management requires a toolbox of skills.  Criticism comes all too easily to most, while the ability to feel gratitude and express praise is often lacking.

Timely, sincere, specific, behavior-focused praise is often a more powerful method of influencing change than criticism.  Specifically, multiple studies have found expressions of gratitude to be highly motivating, while expressions of criticism to be slightly de-motivating but providing more expectation clarification.

Contrary to expectation, if praise is moderate and behavior focused, repeat expressions of gratitude will not lose their impact, and employee performance will increase.

Because of our culture, expressions of gratitude are often difficult to give – cultivating an attitude of gratitude will help.

I’ve seen firsthand the powerful difference between interacting with subordinates more with praise and interacting with some more with criticism.  Those I’ve given more praise are more enthusiastic about working with me, express more creativity, and are so much more fun to work with.

 

28. Gratitude helps you network

Gratitude has been shown across a number of studies to increase social behavior.  Two longitudinal studies showed that those with higher levels of gratitude actually developed more social capital than those with lower levels.

Gratitude helps you get mentors, proteges, and benefactors

Those who are more grateful are more likely to help others, and to pay it forward, that is, to take on mentoring relationships.  But I’m guessing you care more about getting help from mentors and benefactors than being a mentor yourself.  Well, that makes sense – having one or more mentors dramatically increases one’s success rate.

The first level is simple – those who are grateful are more social and also more likely to ask for help.  But it goes one step further – we all ask for help at one time, one of the key differences between one-off help and establishing a mentoring relationship is gratitude.

Flipped around, what is it that makes a person want to help you on a continuous basis?  Gratitude – when their wisdom, experience, and time are well appreciated, mentors will find enjoyment from the process, continuing to help you for weeks, months, or years.

 

29. Gratitude increases your goal achievement

In one study, participants were asked to write down those goals which they wished to accomplish over the next two months. Those who were instructed to keep a gratitude journal reported more progress on achieving their goals at the end of the study. One result doesn’t make science – what you should take away from this is that, at the least, gratitude will not make you lazy and passive. It might even do the opposite!

 

30. Gratitude improves your decision making

Decision making is really tiring – so tiring that we automate to our subconscious much of the reasoning that goes behind making a decision.  Even for the most basic of decisions, like where to go eat, there are dozens of variables to consider: how much time and money do I want to spend, what cuisine would I like today, am I willing to travel far, what should I get once I get there, and so on.  If you deliberated on each of these decisions one at a time, your mind would be overwhelmed.

The problem gets even worse for more complex decisions like making a diagnosis.

In one study, doctors were given a list of ailments from a hypothetical patient and also given a misleading piece of information – that the patient had been diagnosed at another hospital as having lupus.  Half the doctors had gratitude evoked by giving them a token of appreciation.  Those who did not receive a token of appreciation were more likely to stick with the incorrect diagnosis of lupus; those who did receive the gratitude were energized to expend more energy and to pay their gratitude forward onto their patient.  They also considered a wider range of treatment options.

The above study shows that gratitude motivates improved decision making.  Those who cultivate an attitude of gratitude find tokens of appreciation every day, on their own.

 

31. It increases your productivity

Those who are insecure have difficulty focusing because many of their mental resources are tied up with their worries.  On the other hand, those who are highly confident are able to be more productive, because they can direct more of their focus towards their work. This operates at both a conscious and subconscious level – we may be getting mentally distracted by our worries, or more commonly, parts of our subconscious mind are expending energy to suppress negative information and concerns.

As gratitude has been shown to increase self-esteem and reduce insecurity, this means that it can help us focus and improve our productivity.

Gratitude is no cure-all, but it is a massively underutilized tool for improving life-satisfaction and happiness.

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