How Gratitude Changes Your Life with Consistent Practice

Gratitude List: Carlos's Colombian Finca
My friend Carlos enjoying the view from a finca in Colombia circa 2018. He has plenty to be grateful for.

In the fall of 2016, I came home from a backpacking trip around Europe that spanned half the year. It was great to be back in the States with family and friends. But, the familiar comforts of home were no match for the anxiety I felt in my brand new job.

I had accepted a role in the NBA. A dream opportunity for someone like me, but one I expected would be very demanding. I had worked in the league before and knew that the business of basketball was as frenetic as the game itself. The fast-break pace either energizes or crushes you.

Four months in, I found myself letting work do the latter. Meditation, which had become part of my daily routine, lightened some of the load. But I knew I needed to do something else to deal with my constant worry.

Journaling seemed like a worthy solution. Since my anxiety was getting the best of me, what did I have to lose? Writing a daily gratitude list noting a few things that I was thankful for couldn’t hurt, I thought.

Fast forward to today, and that hunch turned out right. The practice of gratitude has become an integral part of my start to each day. I still have ups and downs like anyone else. But journaling about gratitude has made me better at facing life’s daily challenges.

In this article, I’m going share how gratitude changes your life by detailing my story. But you don’t need to take my word for it. There is plenty of research to suggest that it’s true.

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    Defining Gratitude Through the Lens of Psychology

    At its core, gratitude is the recognition of the good we have in our lives. For some, a disposition of gratitude comes natural. For others, it’s something to develop.

    Robert Emmons, a renowned researcher on gratitude, notes that it has two key qualities. They are:

    • Affirmation of goodness: This is understanding that good things happen in our lives. It doesn’t mean you ignore life’s negative circumstances. Instead, you balance out the bad by remembering the good.
    • Understanding that good comes from outside us: True gratitude involves humility. It’s a recognition that there are many things we get in life thanks to the generosity of others.

    Cultivating a Practice of Gratitude: The Proven Advantages

    Gratefulness is something we know we should have. But, the proactive pursuit of it is something we don’t often do.

    David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk known for his efforts in interfaith dialogue. He’s also regarded for his work to find common ground between spirituality and science. In a TED Talk, he speaks of how the cultivation of gratefulness can alter our lives in remarkable fashion.

    “It can change our world in immensely important ways,” says Brother David. “Because if you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough, and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share.

    “If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody,” he adds. “And that changes this power pyramid under which we live.”

    There’s plenty of data that supports the conscious practice of gratitude. Below are a few of the benefits.

    Gratitude Makes You More Mindful.

    Grateful people have greater awareness of the moment at hand. They focus more on the present, rather than the past and future. And as a result, they spend little time concerned about what they don’t have.

    Grateful people also have a deeper sense of what they can and can’t control. According to Emmons, they see themselves as active participants in their lives.

    In one study, Emmons and fellow researcher Michael McCullough experimented on 157 undergraduates. They examined their moods and split them into the following three groups:

    • One that wrote about things they were thankful for.
    • Another that wrote down daily complaints and hassles.
    • And one that made downward social comparisons with those less fortunate.

    The researchers found the thankful group had the most pleasant moods at the end of the study.

    Gratitude Decreases Stress and Improves Mental Health.

    Taking a proactive approach to becoming grateful yields major benefits. UC Davis noted a two-week study on the use of gratitude journals in health-care jobs. The study found those who wrote had less perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent).

    UCD also noted research that discovered grateful people have lower levels of cortisol. Compared to others, grateful people have 23 percent less of the stress-inducing hormone.

    According to Emmons, gratitude deters stress because it blocks toxic emotions. When gratitude is present, feelings like envy, resent, regret, and depression are absent. As a consequence, grateful people have a reduced lifetime risk of mental illness.

    Gratitude Enhances Physical Health.

    Those who are grateful eat better than those who don’t. UCD spotlighted research that gratitude writers consume 25 percent less dietary fat. Grateful people also own lower levels of c-reactive protein. At higher amounts, this protein made by your liver is a strong indicator of body inflammation.

    I see this correlation at work in my own life. Working out and eating well became habits long after I started journaling about gratitude. The discipline I built around gratefulness made me believe I could do the same with diet and exercise.

    Gratitude Improves Sleep.

    If you have trouble going to bed, then an infusion of gratitude can help. Grateful people have an easier time sleeping than their thankless peers.

    The University of Manchester discovered negative correlations between gratitude and poor sleep quality. Researchers found that grateful people had less negative thoughts before falling asleep. Instead, they had more positive thoughts, which likely led to better rest.

    Gratitude Fosters the Growth of Kindness.

    Gratitude can be a key factor in developing moral behavior. Findings from Emmons and McCullough’s study support this idea. The gratitude group reported more kind behavior than the other two groups. For example, grateful people were more likely to provide emotional support to others.

    Grateful people tend to have stronger social bonds, too. Emmons suggests this is because they have more “prosocial” traits. Qualities like empathy and forgiveness are more prevalent in those who practice gratitude.

    How to Write a Gratitude List: An Easy Way to Develop Thanks

    If gratitude isn’t your natural disposition, that’s okay. Like anything in life, it’s something you can improve.

    Take it from writer AJ Jacobs, author of Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. The book is about Jacobs’s unusual quest to thank every person who played a role in making his morning coffee.

    All 1,000 of them.

    “It doesn’t come naturally to most of us,” Jacobs says on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. “Especially me. And learning how to be grateful is one of the most important things I’ve learned in my life. Because as psychologists will tell you, gratitude is a key to happiness, if not the key to happiness.”

    One of the best ways to improve is by keeping a gratitude journal. As I’ve mentioned, this self-guided exercise has become a critical part to how I start my day. My gratitude lists have brought greater calm to my life and lessened my anxiety.

    Here are some recommendations on how you can make your own.

    Tools for Writing Your Gratitude List

    I love new technology as much as anyone. But when it comes to journaling about gratitude, I rely on old tech instead. A pen or pencil along with a notebook is all you need to do the job. We spend so much time with screens these days that there’s value in disconnecting – even if only for a few moments.

    But, I won’t begrudge you for doing otherwise. Feel free to use mobile apps like Apple Notes, Evernote, or Google Docs to write your gratitude lists. There’s no denying that technology makes organization a whole lot easier.

    What Should You Write on Your Gratitude List?

    You can list names of friends or family. Or, you can write about experiences and things. There aren’t any limits when it comes to making a gratitude list.

    What I write ranges from the remarkable to the mundane. And more often than not, my gratitude lists consist of the latter. Finding meaning in daily life is something you learn from this practice. Gratitude for the mundane increases your appreciation for life’s extraordinary moments, too. When amazing things happen, you feel it, and you recognize it.

    Simplicity is the key to many things I do. When I started, I didn’t complicate the exercise. If I did, I doubt that it would’ve became a habit. To this day, I still write only three things that I’m grateful for because it’s easy to do.

    It’s worth lowering the bar to develop the routine. Then as the practice becomes ritual, you can expand on it later.

    There’s no right or wrong way to write a gratitude list. Go in depth or keep it concise. Write three things or write down 10. Do it first thing in the morning or before you go to bed. It doesn’t matter. What counts the most is the act itself.

    Why Practice Is the Key to Building More Blessings

    When it comes to developing gratitude, I’m a firm believer in practice. Developing consistent rituals and routines is a key to mastering anything in life. You can apply that same logic to developing more gratitude.

    “The very fact that gratitude is a virtue suggests that it must be deliberately cultivated. Like any virtue, it must be taught, or at least modeled, and practiced regularly, until it becomes in an Aristotelian sense, a habit of character.”

    Emmons and Anjali Mishra in their joint paper Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being – What We Know, What We Need to Know

    Writing a daily gratitude list turns theory into practice. Instead of waiting for gratitude to come to you, a practice does the opposite. It brings you to a grateful state.

    Gratitude is transformative, but cultivating it is a slow and steady churn. The more you practice, the better you’ll become.

    The job in the NBA didn’t work out, but it wasn’t because my gratitude practice failed me. I did have guilt about leaving so soon. But I left after that season feeling more grateful than when I returned. I was thankful that I had colleagues who gave me a chance to test the waters, yet understood when I decided to walk away.

    I left that job only scratching the surface of the power of gratitude. I’m still a work in progress, but I’ve reaped intrinsic rewards as a result. Writing daily gratitude lists hasn’t erased all negativity from my life. But the effort has made me less pessimistic, and more hopeful as well.

    Some people might be skeptical or think that my optimism is naive. After all, there’s a lot that goes wrong in the world. But, the practice of gratitude is a worthwhile reminder that there’s a lot that goes right.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.