I’m very familiar with the idea of informed consent. I work in public health and my undergraduate major was psychology, two fields where research, and therefore informed consent, is a norm. Informed consent is the idea that anyone participating in research should be made aware of the possible risks, benefits, intended or unintended outcomes, and intent of a study. It usually precedes someone’s agreement to participate in any kind of research. I’ve gladly signed many informed consent forms, being fascinated with the world of research and, out of curiosity, volunteering myself as a guinea pig of sorts. I didn’t know until recently, however, that I have been unknowingly participating in an area of research for more than a decade of my life, by keeping a gratitude journal.
For the past 13 years, I didn’t know I was living proof of what is the focus of a growing body of research: The regular practice of gratitude can change your life. Research on gratitude in the last decade has shown that something as simple as saying each day what we’re thankful for can have a number of benefits: feeling more optimistic; an increase in happiness; positive feelings toward one’s partner; an increase in motivation for work hard; better sleep; expressing kindness and compassion more often; strengthening of our immune system; more working out; and fewer trips to the doctor’s office. All of those positive results from something so simple? If gratitude were a pill, bottles of it would be flying off the shelves.
The great thing about gratitude is that it can happen anywhere at any time. Research by the University of Michigan on what they call “3 Good Things” took place in the context of decreasing burnout in a healthcare setting, but the lessons can be applied anywhere and to everyone. What I like about this research is that it recognizes we have a natural inclination to remember negative things. This trait has helped us survive, and in that way, is quite useful. However, we need to “turn up the volume” on the positive things, too. The researchers suggest doing this right before bedtime, as our recall of things is strongest when they occur in the two hours before falling asleep. If we think of three good things before going to bed, we carry those benefits into our sleep, and end the day on a good note, too.
When I began my regular practice of gratitude, I barely knew what research was. I was a high school junior in English class, enjoying my first day back at school after Christmas break. We were going around sharing our New Year’s resolutions, and one classmate said she had seen the idea of a gratitude journal on Oprah. Loving Oprah, my interest was piqued. I decided, then and there, that each day I would write down 10 things I was grateful for. To be honest, I expected to lose interest after a while. I hated journaling and easily grew bored with writing in notebooks. For reasons I can’t really explain, it stuck. Thirteen years later, at the ripe age of 29, I can testify that a lot of the positive outcomes to which current research points are things I’ve known for years. The practice of gratitude can change your life.
Now, I have to stop and say that gratitude can come in many forms. If you’re interested in a daily practice of gratitude, you don’t have to commit to a notebook and pen. Sites like happify.com give great examples of how you can “freshen up” your practice of giving thanks. Try different ways of giving thanks. If it feels daunting, don’t commit to a commitment, simply commit to trying.
When people ask me for advice in starting a lifestyle of gratitude, I usually offer three tips:
- Work on being present. We cannot realize the gifts in our own lives or extend our gratitude toward others without presence. Make more eye contact. Hold your head up when you walk around, and take in your surroundings. Spend a few of your days on public transit without earbuds or a magazine. When we are truly present in the moment, we will be profoundly more aware of the gifts in our lives.
- Be kind to yourself. When we make a commitment to health and wellness, we often gauge our success by how many miles we ran this week, and beat ourselves up when we take a nap on the couch instead of going for a run. In your commitment to gratitude, know that you are fighting a lot of modern-day norms. It will take time. Stay the course, and measure your success by how your awareness is changing. Awareness and gratitude walk hand-in-hand.
- Try to do normal, everyday things in a new way. Take one essential, everyday task and simply do it with more awareness. Ask yourself: How and when do I usually eat? Maybe you eat in front of a computer, while talking on the phone, or while watching TV. For one week, try eating one thing, not even one meal, in complete silence. Just focus on eating. If gratitude can change something as essential as eating for us, it can change other aspects of our lives, too.
This Thanksgiving, challenge yourself to take the spirit of the season and carry it on. Try a day more, a month more, and who knows, maybe even 13 years more. When we commit to living a life of presence and gratitude, the effect will ripple through our present moment and into our future, too.