Have you heard about the benefits of practicing gratitude? It's a little bit like mindfulness these days in that I feel like I'm reading about it at every turn. But the science behind it is well-documented and compelling. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. Basically, being grateful can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
Last week was the Fall Equinox, one of two days in the year when daytime and nighttime are roughly equal in length. Moving forward, we will have more hours of darkness than daylight until the Winter Solstice on December 21. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the shorter days (take your vitamin D!) but I do look forward to the natural turning-inward and reflection that accompany this time of year.
As it turns out, there is a rich tradition of reflection and gratitude in the fall, spurred by the connection between appreciating the fruits of our labor, the harvest, and preparing for the winter. The leaves change colors, our days get shorter, and we are naturally prompted to notice the changes that have taken place in our lives and to "practice gratitude." So how does one actually "practice gratitude?" Taking our cues from nature, here are three ideas for some seasonally appropriate gratitude:
Traditional •Do something that directly supports the Earth, like planting a tree or hanging a bird feeder.
Symbolic •Do something symbolic like lighting a candle and saying “thank you,” or reaching out to people who helped you most this year to reconnect.
Simple •Make small expressions of gratitude like covering for a co-worker, or simply and sincerely thanking your barista, bus driver or neighbor.
Because our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness, it’s only natural to consider others as we build our gratitude practice. By writing down positive things that happen to you and actively acknowledging the people who have helped you, you become more tuned in to the good in your life. This naturally translates to feeling more grateful, more often. Here are three time-honored ways to do this:
Keep a gratitude journal —jot down things in your day or week that you are grateful for.
Write a thank you note (or gratitude letter) to someone who had an impact on you whom you’ve never properly thanked.
Share the day’s grateful moments with family and friends around the dinner table.
Whether or not these gratitude attitudes come naturally, paying attention to life's positives can train you to notice more and more of them, which will build on itself. A gratitude snowball! You might feel blessed by a sunny day in December (or August, if you live in San Francisco!) or appreciate that your neighbor brought in your garbage bins, that you made it to the bus on time, or that your kids did the dishes without being asked. Acknowledging these things—on paper, with words, or even in your thoughts—will help you cultivate a habitual attitude of gratitude and with it, a boost in lasting happiness.
Of course, the actual goal of practicing gratitude isn't to have a book of all your gratitudes, but rather to make gratitude a default feeling — a habit, if you will. According to research, there are four primary characteristics of grateful people (and that the above practices can help cultivate.) People who experience the most gratitude tend to:
Feel a sense of abundance in their lives
Appreciate the contributions of others to their well-being
Recognize and enjoy life's small pleasures
Acknowledge the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude
And, in case happiness itself isn’t motivation enough, consider the many health benefits associated with gratitude: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, more resilience in tough times, and greater feelings of connection and value. Simply put, people who are grateful are both happier and healthier.
In every season, in good times and bad, in high times and low, a practice of gratitude can be a buffer to stress and contribute to a happier, more resilient mindset. Gratitude really can be your secret super power.
*For a quick boost (and to watch gratitude in action) check out this short video.