Thanksgiving: It’s More than Turkey and Crazy RelativesNovember 10 , 2011

       Or “The Science of Gratitude”

In a previous post, I shared ideas for developing a daily ritual for gratitude.  (Quick reminder for those of you too busy to click the link: sit down for a few minutes each day and write about three things in your life that are going well.)  In honor of Thanksgiving, we’re going to spend the next few weeks looking a little deeper into the powerful practice of gratitude and its link to happiness.

Initial research into gratitude found that grateful people are happier, more energetic, more forgiving and more hopeful than their less grateful counterparts.  While this correlation is useful, it was only in the last decade that experiments were designed to provide proof that focusing on gratitude could make you happier.

Several top research teams randomly assigned people in their studies to one of two groups.  The first group, the “gratitude group,” was assigned to regularly do an exercise similar to the three good things exercise as described at the link above.  The “control group” was told to do some other writing assignment at the same frequency.  Each group’s happiness was evaluated over time.

The findings were as conclusive as science gets.  The gratitude groups all had statistically significant increases in their happiness scores and decreases in their negative emotion scores at the end of the experiment.  In the longest running of the studies they found that these increases were sustained (and even increased) 6 months after the study completed.  When the investigators (Seligman and Peterson) talked to the subjects they found that most of the “gratitude group” subjects had continued the gratitude writing long after the experiment required because of how well it was working for them.

There is no one right way to “practice gratitude.”  Some of the experiments had people do the gratitude practice daily, others weekly.  While I recommend everyone start with a daily practice for the first month or two to help lock it into a habit and more quickly strengthen those neuro-pathways, do what works with your schedule and temperament.

After you’ve established a regular habit, experiment with other parts of the practice to keep it fresh.  You can try spending a week going deep into one part of your life (gratitude for family one week, then friends, work, or your health, the next week, etc.)  Some days you can list several things and other days go more deeply into the feelings and possible causes of one thing.   Customize it.  See what elicits more positive emotions for you and go with it.  The key is to consistently reserve time to look for what’s good in your life.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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