Studies show that consciously counting our blessings has verifiable health benefits. But if giving thanks is so great, why do our blessings often seem so hard to see?
Grateful people are less depressed, more resistant to trauma, and better able to cope with stress. There are mental hurdles to becoming more grateful, but we are now beginning to understand how to beat them.
In a 2013 presentation at the Greater Good Gratitude Summit, Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich said a big obstacle to gratitude is the way our mind works. We typically remember the things that hold us back, but tend to forget the moments when life rewards us.
“Since we’re goal striving, problem-solving organisms, we’re naturally going to be oriented to the barriers we have to overcome,” Gilovich said. “That’s a very good thing for our material existence, but it creates an obvious problem of not being aware of all the stuff that has helped us along.”
Looking for the Good
One of the ways we can keep track of the good things is to record them.
Artist and retired attorney Susan Fox, for example, keeps a gratitude journal.
Studies found that devoting 15 minutes before bed to write what you’re grateful for can result in better sleep and a greater sense of happiness.
“It seems more and more, we’re confronted with fear,” Fox said. “But when we sit down and think about what we’re grateful for—the good things that are around us—it pushes out some of that fear.”
Fox has kept a gratitude journal on and off since 1997. With each entry, she jots down five things she is grateful for. She recently looked back at some of the blessings she had collected.
“A lot of these things, I don’t overtly remember the incident. But when I go back to read it, I can feel them,” she said.
Fox said making an effort to be grateful keeps things in perspective.
“You see that it’s not all out to get you. There are so many things around you, big and little, that are good,” she said.
Gratitude helps us to feel good and it inspires us to do good. Social scientists study gratitude partly to collect hard evidence on its strengthening effects on society’s moral fabric.
Gratitude helps us see our influence in a large, intricate network of relationships, according to Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher and professor at the University of California–Davis.
Gratitude serves as a key link in the dynamic between giving and receiving, Emmons writes in his book “Gratitude Works: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.”
“It also motivates the recipient’s future benevolent actions,” he writes.
Studies now underway reveal how gratitude can encourage corporations to be socially responsible, give individuals a sense of purpose, and make us more likely to “pay it forward.”
Three years ago, Stephanie Walkenshaw almost died. The media relations coordinator and mother of two is still grateful for the people who gave of themselves—figuratively and literally—to save her life.
Ten days after the birth of her second child, Walkenshaw started bleeding, and it wouldn’t stop. When she got to the hospital, her condition grew worse.
“It was pretty terrifying,” she said. “My mom was there and getting more and more stricken with worry. … She watched all the color drain from my face. My lips turned completely grey.
“She thought I was going to die right in front of her eyes.”
Doctors found an enormous buildup of tissue, which can occur during pregnancy. The bleeding stopped once the tissue was cleared, but during recovery, Walkenshaw faced another problem: Every time she got up to go to the restroom, she fainted.
“This went on for hours,” she said. “They told me I needed a blood transfusion.”
Doctors found that Walkenshaw had lost a quarter of her blood supply. After a transfusion of three pints of blood, she could finally go home.
“It was a crazy experience and I couldn’t even think about what it meant until after I got home. My mom, I don’t even think she’s over it now,” Walkenshaw said.
Walkenshaw still thinks of the people who saved her life and those who donated the blood that saved her when so much of hers was lost. The experience leaves her wanting to give back.
“Gratitude makes you feel connected,” she said. “It’s not transactional. It’s not held to time. It’s not held to a particular situation, and it’s not a debt. But I have this thing that I carry with me.”
Her experience reveals a virtuous cycle: gratitude encourages giving, which encourages even more gratitude and hence more giving. It’s a cycle that makes for kinder, happier people, who make a better world.