This story comes from Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude; and Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University.
It's about a woman, Susanna, who was facing severe stress in many areas of life. Her husband had cheated on her; he had also nearly bankrupted the family with a gambling addiction. A recent accident had strained the family's finances even further. Susanna was struggling.
Susanna’s therapist suggested exercises on gratitude as part of her treatment plan. You may be thinking, "Yeah, okay. What can a warm-and-fuzzy feeling like gratitude possibly do in the face of such serious stress?"
But gratitude did two things for Susanna. First, it kept her from social isolation and emotionally available for her children. This is because gratitude is a "prosocial" emotion that strengthens our bonds with others. Second, as she thought about the next steps she wanted to take in her marriage and life, gratitude also instilled in Susanna a sense of anticipation and hope for the future.
We have seen the same phenomenon with a recent crisis on a more global scale. Recent research* during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that gratitude:
- Boosted positive feelings like joy, cheerfulness and took the edge off of negative feelings like distress and fear;
- Reduced perceived stress levels;
- Alleviated feelings of depression in frontline healthcare workers; and
- Strengthened social connections and built a sense of hope.
*Research citations appear at the end of this article.
There are Three Steps to Gratitude.
Dr. Emmons has described 3 key steps to gratitude:
First, we recognize that a gift or benefit has been given to us. Second, we intellectually acknowledge the value of the gift or benefit. We affirm that something good has happened and we understand that others deserve the credit for that.
In the third step, we figuratively move from our head to our heart: we react. We appreciate the gift and the giver. This is important because it means that gratitude is not usually a solo exercise. Gratitude points us outside ourselves and helps us recognize how others support and enrich our own existence.
This is Your Brain on Gratitude.
The act of gratitude triggers a fireworks show of activity across the brain.
The pyrotechnics start in sensory processing centers as we see, feel, hear, taste, and touch the world around us. As we react to novel stimuli, "feel-good" chemicals shoot out along the brain's reward pathways like sparklers. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain's center of analysis and reason, also lights up as we recognize and understand what's happening.
Here's where things gets really interesting, because the PFC is also massively connected to brain and body systems that regulate our emotions and even our response to stress and pain. Researchers believe that this is how gratitude exerts its analgesic effect (it does activate the brain's natural opioid pathways, after all) and helps calm us down in stressful circumstances.
The practice of gratitude has been shown to alter both our brains and behavior. For example, in one study researchers divided people who were struggling with anxiety or depression into two groups: 1) therapy or 2) therapy plus gratitude exercises. After three months, those who practiced gratitude had a greater PFC response and also acted with more gratitude.
Gratitude is Fertilizer for the Mind.
In The Little Book of Gratitude, Dr. Emmons wrote, “Gratitude is fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of existence.”
It’s no wonder, then, that gratitude can impact us is so many wonderful ways:
Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to boost happiness, optimism, joy, and enthusiasm. Gratitude also helps us when we’re struggling - it dampens feelings of anxiety and depression and boosts our resilience during crisis.
Gratitude makes us healthier. We experience less aches and pains and less health problems. We sleep better. We also tend to take care of ourselves better - we eat better and exercise more, we keep up with health check-ups, and we avoid risky behaviors and substances.
Gratitude improves relationships by creating a virtuous cycle of trust and generosity: we care more about others and they, in turn, appreciate us more. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in understanding others’ perspectives and giving rise to empathy. Brain scans of those who regularly practice gratitude show that this brain area lights up more during altruistic tasks, and they take more pleasure in helping others.
"The brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. Rest your mind upon worry, sadness, annoyance, and irritability and it will begin to take the shape neurally of anxiety, depression, and anger. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for, and begin to take the shape of gratitude.” - Robert A. Emmons, Little Book of Gratitude
How to build GRIT and GRATITUDE
Below, you will find some tried and true exercises for building more grit through gratitude:
The first is one of the simplest and therefore easiest to do.
There's no right or wrong way to keep a gratitude journal. And you don't to journal every day, either. But the purpose of each entry is simply to reflect back and remember 3-5 things you’re grateful for. You can use prompts if you would like - here are some from a positive psychology site:
- I’m grateful for three things I hear, see, smell, taste, or touch:
- I’m grateful for these three animals/birds:
- I’m grateful for these three friends:
- I’m grateful for these three teachers:
- I’m grateful for these three family members:
- I’m grateful for these three things in my home:
You can participate in an online gratitude journal as well.
Research shows this to be one of the most powerful exercises. It was shown to reduce symptoms of depression in college students who tried it. It’s also included in Robert Emmon’s book, The Little Book of Gratitude.
Write a hand-written note to someone that you are grateful for. This person may be a friend, family member, coworker, teacher, or mentor. It doesn’t have to be long – 300 words or less is ideal. You can write it two parts:
Part 1: Tell them what they did, how it impacted you, how it made you feel, and why it was important to you.
Part 2: Tell them what it says about them that they did this amazing thing for you. You may also want to talk about how it has impacted your relationship with them.
For some added zest, do this as a surprise, for someone who is not expecting it. Deliver the letter in person and read it to them.
For a highly visual way of counting your blessings:
- Find a jar or box. Decorate it any way you'd like.
- Every day, think of three things you are grateful for. Write each on a slip of paper and put it the jar.
- When you are feeling down, reach into the jar and read some of the notes.
To help you think of and count your blessings throughout the day:
- Find a rock or another small object that you like or that has special meaning to you. Maybe it's something you found at a special vacation spot. Or maybe you just think it’s pretty. Just make sure it’s something that you like to look at and touch.
- Carry this object around. You can also make it into a necklace or charm bracelet, or just leave it where you will see it often.
- Every time you see or touch this object, take a moment to think of something you are thankful for.
- At the end of the day, touch this object to bring back to mind everything you thought of during the day. You can also do the same the next morning, to start your day immersed in gratitude.
Need downloadable resources on grit and gratitude? Check out my FREE resources page.
You can find several FREE resources related to grit, resilience, gratitude, and well-being on my resources page. Check back often as I add things often.