Every Thanksgiving, we take time to reflect on the things (and, more importantly, people) we’re grateful for. While it’s a worthwhile tradition, there’s just one problem: it only happens once a year. In reality, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be the only time of year we give thanks. According to Robert A. Emmons, a psychologist and professor at UC Davis, we would do well to make this a part of daily life. He calls this the “practice of gratitude” and has spent decades researching and documenting its effects on those who practice it. But what does this look like? And what kinds of effects does it produce? Let’s explore this in more detail.
Gratitude in Practice
To experience the positive effects of gratitude, one must regard it as more than a mere emotion or reaction and make it a practice—an activity one deliberately engages in on a regular basis. Here are a few examples of how you can practice gratitude in your daily life:
Keep a gratitude journal. Regularly take time to write down the things you’re grateful for. The key to this practice isn’t frequency so much as intentionality—in other words, it’s quality over quantity. In-depth journaling once a week will have a greater impact than half-heartedly jotting something down three times a week. Really focus on what you’re journaling about and sit with the feeling of gratitude.
Write letters of thanks. Another way to practice gratitude is to write letters to people who’ve had a positive influence on your life. This might be someone you’ve already thanked in the past, or it could be someone you’ve never had a chance to properly thank. Consider writing your letters by hand—a hand-written letter tends to feel more personal and meaningful than a text or email.
Meditate. Take a few minutes each day to meditate on the good you’ve received. This may take the form of sitting quietly or taking a “gratitude walk” around the block.
The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
In his book, “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” Professor Emmons says adults who keep a consistent gratitude journal “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits…feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.” In fact, an early study found that subjects’ happiness levels increased by 25% when they kept a gratitude journal. Additionally, his research has found that practicing gratitude can:
- Improve your general health, including more regular exercise and fewer physical symptoms
- Help you cope more effectively with stress
- Increase the length and quality of your sleep
- Enhance your relationships
- Increase feelings of connectedness
Sound too good to be true? Not according to Professor Emmons. “Our groundbreaking research has shown that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.” What’s more, Professor Emmons says it doesn’t take a large amount of time or work to reap these benefits—just a few hours of gratitude journaling over a three-week period can create an effect that lasts six months or more.
So, as you reflect on what you’re grateful for this Thanksgiving, make a mental note to prolong your gratitude focus beyond the holiday and into the following year.