Gratitude: What’s the secret sauce?
Gratitude is regarded as a mega-strategy for achieving happiness. Studies suggest that one of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to have a daily practice of intentionally noticing and appreciating what’s working well in your life and why. Our brains have a negativity bias, so it’s really important to make a conscious effort to think about the positive, and notice what’s going right!
Years ago, I started a gratitude jar in our family to help all of us to appreciate when good things happened. Anyone can use the jar at any time; there’s some little squares of paper and a pen sitting on the bench right next to it. At certain times of the year we empty out the jar and read through all the notes. It’s amazing to read these and hear the little things that have really made a difference. Here’s a picture of some of my favourite all time gratitude notes from my kids
when they were very young.
Translation for those who don’t speak kindergartener: ‘Family dinner in the dining room.’ ‘Tooth fairy coming’. ‘Doing meditation’.
There is a secret sauce in how you apply gratitude interventions to your daily life – the research is quite clear on what is effective and what isn’t. So, if you want to dig in and learn more, stick with me for a couple of minutes.
What is gratitude?
If, like me, you think you know what a word means but when someone asks you, you find it hard to put it into words; here’s a little help.
There are actually two types. The first type of gratitude is trait gratitude, also known as dispositional gratitude, which is your innate tendency for being grateful. State gratitude on the other hand is all about your feelings in the moment towards a particular positive event or circumstance that leads you to further positive behaviour.
Research has shown that those with trait gratitude generally report higher state gratitude on a daily basis, as they frame daily experiences in a more positive way. So in other words, our innate level of gratitude helps us notice more of the positives around us and to be more grateful for them in the moment.
Does being grateful really do anything for us?
There’s some really interesting evidence here. Studies have shown that those high in trait gratitude:
- Have fewer depressive symptoms. Wonderful right? Even better is that at the other end of the spectrum, high state gratitude had been linked to flourishing mental health.
- Are more motivated to interact positively with others. The knock-on consequence is that we feel more connection, which increases our wellbeing and life satisfaction.
- Are more likely to forgive, show empathy and be supportive towards others and less likely to be envious, anxious and depressed.
- Are less focussed on materialistic goals and more focussed on purposeful goals.
I hear what you’re thinking. That’s all great. But if I don’t have a high level of innate, or dispositional gratitude, then what can I do?
You can practice state gratitude – your ability to be grateful in the moment. Here’s what the studies show about people who have been assigned to practice gratitude:
- They show an increase in wellbeing both over the period of the study, and when measured up to six months later (yes, SIX months!)
- They show an increase in self-improvement behaviours, demonstrating an ability to draw on resources and cope with challenges.
- They believe that they are worthy of positive outcomes and become more willing to work towards personal improvement goals.
- They have more positive perceptions of their environment and relationships, and feel more connected to others, leading to more prosocial and self-improvement behaviour, which taken together lead to an increase in wellbeing.
Pretty amazing results, right? Wouldn’t we all like to feel more connected, positive, and focussed on purposeful goals?
I’ve tried gratitude and it doesn’t work for me. What’s the secret sauce?!
Notwithstanding the benefits that have been evidenced in the research on gratitude, one of the most significant issues is that despite being given the opportunity to participate in a gratitude exercise and experiencing a positive wellbeing effect, the majority of participants will choose not to continue with the gratitude exercise.
In one study where participants identified they were interested in completing a gratitude intervention, only 5.6% of them actually went on to complete the intervention.
So, what’s the secret sauce? You need to have the ‘will’ to become happier in order to complete a gratitude intervention. In fact, self-selection of the particular task is actually very important for success. In essence, you need to be motivated to increase your happiness and have the autonomy to choose the intervention that is right for you in order to exert the effort to complete the exercise.
Only when there is the application of motivation, effort and autonomy toward the gratitude intervention does it lead to an increase in happiness and wellbeing.
Top Tips For Gratitude Interventions:
- Effort: Make it easy. If it is too time consuming or difficult to do, we both know you won’t do it!
- Autonomy: Choose to practice gratitude in a way that works for you.
- Motivation: Don’t keep doing the same thing all the time. Change it up when you get bored of it; make it fun, and notice the impact you’re having on yourself and others.
A friend of mine has a gratitude alarm that goes off at certain times each day. No matter where she is, she will stop and say what she’s grateful for, and ask those around to share as well. There have been times when we have been in a restaurant with a waiter taking our order, and she will ask the waiter to share what they are grateful for. We’ve been in the middle of a workshop and the alarm has gone off and we’ve stopped the session and gone around the room to ask the participants what they are grateful for. Even in an Uber once, she asked the Uber driver! It is quite amazing what random strangers will share with you, if you just ask.
Gratitude doesn’t have to be hard – just remember, effort, autonomy and motivation. Happy practicing!