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The Psychological Importance of Gratitude and Gratefulness

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

As we approach Thanksgiving in the United States, it’s important to discuss the fact that expressing gratefulness is a psychologically healthy thing to do. Research over recent years clearly shows that gratitude has been linked to decreased depression, increased optimism, fewer physical ailments and increased amounts of Dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is also referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain. Perhaps what is best about gratitude is that it’s free and it feels really good.

According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, not all gratitude is the same. In other words, according to Simon-Thomas, the research is showing that “gratitude expressed—not just felt, but expressed—is actually the most powerful form of gratitude, one that has the most bang for your buck in terms of its impact on your day-to-day psychological experience.” In addition, this is not a matter of going through the motions of saying “thank you” but of really meaning it. It’s the sincerity and focus that results in the nerve cells in the brain producing increased dopamine.

Robert Emmons of Greater Good, whose article can be found at:

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/ten_ways_to_become_more_grateful1/

discusses the following way people can become more grateful:

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal. Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable life theme of gratefulness.

2. Remember the Bad. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.

3. Ask Yourself Three Questions. Utilize the meditation technique known as Naikan, which involves reflecting on three questions: “What have I received from __?”, “What have I given to __?”, and “What troubles and difficulty have I caused?”

4. Learn Prayers of Gratitude. In many spiritual traditions, prayers of gratitude are considered to be the most powerful form of prayer, because through these prayers people recognize the ultimate source of all they are and all they will ever be.

5. Come to Your Senses. Through our senses—the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear—we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift.

6. Use Visual Reminders. Because the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. Often times, the best visual reminders are other people.

7. Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude. Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed. Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as “I vow to count my blessings each day,” and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day.

8. Watch your Language. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. In gratitude, you should not focus on how inherently good you are, but rather on the inherently good things that others have done on your behalf.

9. Go Through the Motions. If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude.

10. Think Outside the Box. If you want to make the most out of opportunities to flex your gratitude muscles, you must creatively look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful.

Just as Jeremy Adam Smith, also of Greater Good explains:

“Gratitude doesn’t make problems and threats disappear. We can lose jobs, we can be attacked on the street, we can get sick. I’ve experienced all of those things. I remember those harrowing times at unexpected moments: My heart beats faster, my throat constricts. My body wants to hit something or run away, one or the other. But there’s nothing to hit, nowhere to run. The threats are indeed real, but at that moment, they exist only in memory or imagination. I am the threat; it is me who is wearing myself out with worry.

That’s when I need to turn on the gratitude. If I do that enough, suggests the psychological research, gratitude might just become a habit. What will that mean for me? It means, says the research, that I increase my chances of psychologically surviving hard times, that I stand a chance to be happier in the good times. I’m not ignoring the threats; I’m appreciating the resources and people that might help me face those threats.”

This can be found at:

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_grateful_people

Happy Thanksgiving

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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