Gratitude – Does it really change us?

As defined in the Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers



“a feeling of thankfulness of appreciation, as for gifts or favours”

Word origin

C16: from Medieval Latin grātitūdō, from Latin grātus grateful

“Be thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more.

If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never ever have enough.”

Oprah Winfrey

I love to read and learn new information and my book at the moment is ‘the unexpected joy of the ordinary’ by Catherine Gray. In this book she reminds us to not overlook the everyday minutiae of our lives and points as to why we are often not satisfied. We buy the new book, get new carpets fitted, a new dress or hair style and want the next new and shiny thing. Amazingly there is a neurological reason for this.

But I digress, as I want to understand what effect writing our ‘gratitude's’ has on our lives and that if, by making this one small change, will it have an influence on our minds and bodies.

We know that they are interlinked and by changing one small element can we change so much more?

A bit of science – a study was held with 300 American college students, who were suffering with symptoms of anxiety and depression. In the report that was written in 2016 it showed that of the 3 groups, one set up as the base group, who received only counselling, the second group had counselling and had to write a negative letters about their ‘deepest thoughts and feelings’, while the third group had counselling and ‘needed to write a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks’. At the end of this they found that the group who were showing gratitude through their writing and receiving counselling were reporting greater results in their mental health than those in the other groups. The combination of the counselling and gratitude recognition was providing amazing results.

So, we have some scientific evidence to back it up and I have included the link, at the bottom of my page, so you can read more on that if you would like.

I am sure that during the recent pandemic many people will have seen articles recommending we are grateful for all and sundry and we are often left wondering why? We are all so busy trying to ‘stay afloat’ and rushing around in our busy lives that we don’t have time to be grateful for a hot cup of tea, a call from a friend or the robin in the garden.

Well, that’s because our brains are wired to focus on the negatives in our lives and this is an innate and necessary function that we originally needed to survive as cave men and women. The fight or flight element had to be overly sensitive and neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson defines this bias towards the negative in a wonderful quote “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

So, we can begin to see why we have to make an effort to think in a positive and grateful way. When we experience something in our lives that is amazing or good and we recognise the effect it has on us, e.g. through gratitude, then this provides us with the solution or antidote to our otherwise intrinsic recognition of all the threats around us, due to our inherent and biological feelings or thoughts.

Catherine Gray looks at gratitude without her rose tinted glasses on and says it for what it is and for how a lot of people probably perceive it. ‘Appreciate everything’ and how this can be seen as “disingenuous” and often leads to not even starting a gratitude journey because how can we find joy and love in our job if we loath it, or where’s the gratitude in struggling each month to find enough money for the electricity meter? She drills into this notion of gratitude and unearths the knowledge that often we are too vague through the grand scale of our gratitude:

I am grateful for my family.

I am grateful for my house.

I am grateful for my body.

The repetition of these huge gratitude’s also leads us to a place where the delight behind them becomes null and void. This was noted in a study that was done in 2005 called Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Riverside Kennon M. Sheldon & David Schkade, where they looked at how activities, when repeated for a period of time, can lose their potency and this is relevant when we are searching for how to find the right way to elicit our gratitude’s for greater happiness.

Catherine Gray suggests that we need to focus on the ‘micro gratitude’ and be as specific as possible when we are looking to recognise and be thankful each day.

When we are considering our happiness it has been explained by scientists that we have an inherited base point for our day to day happiness and this is set at 50 per cent, then 10 per cent is put down to our environment or circumstance and then the 40 per cent that is left over is impacted by what we do. What we do, is considered as ‘intentional activities that require some degree of effort.’

That’s a huge chunk of optimal happiness that we can actively tap into to make our lives more wonderful and amazing.

Dr. Alex Korb noted in his book ‘Upward Spiral’ that by thinking about what we are grateful for and making this part of our day we naturally look to the positive occurrences in our daily lives. This in turn sets off the good hormones in our brains that helps to regulate our emotions and stress, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. With all of this positive change going on its not surprising that it continues to then provide us with greater opportunities for happiness and joy. He also mentions in an article how gratitude leads us to improved sleep, reduces pain, regulates stress and helps with reducing anxiety and depression.

I think that we can all agree that learning to express our gratitude will be a really useful skill for us to have so here we go. How can we do this?

Catherine Gray mentioned ‘micro gratitude’ and being specific, Dr Korb recommends it being ‘snappy’ as if we get into writing reams, we being to analyse, and that is not where we are heading with this, we want that lovely warm feeling, a smile that creeps up on our face or the little bubble of joy when we think of our gratitude’s. Having said all of that gratitude letters can be very beneficial, and you don’t even have to send them, just the ‘intentional activity’ delivers the good flow of endorphins.

It has also been recognised that by being grateful to ourselves when we do the everyday menial tasks, like cooking, hoovering, exercise etc. by thanking ourselves, it makes the task easier each and every time we do it.

Here are a few of my ‘Micro Gratitude’s’

· My Bic 4 coloured pen – so when I write I can change colour to highlight different ideas

· My hot mug of tea that warms my cold fingers

· My dog’s ears twitching as he hears me moving around

· The sound of the wind moving the leaves on the Silver Birch trees.

The recipe is:

· Be specific

· Make it snappy

· Keep them new and fresh

· Find the small details in each day

Thank you for reading, I am truly grateful for the experience of reading, writing and learning about something new.

Happy ‘Gratitude writing’

Resources for more information

Study information 2016 – 300 American students


How replaying our blessings lessens them

Dr Alex Korb

All about Gratitude

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