Practicing gratitude

Gratitude is a powerful skill to develop every day of your life.

A CHILD’S note, written after Hurricane Katrina, expresses gratitude for food and water, for a motel, for his family and for the people who helped them. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CHILD’S note, written after Hurricane Katrina, expresses gratitude for food and water, for a motel, for his family and for the people who helped them.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gratitude as “a state of being grateful; thankfulness.”
In Hebrew, the term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”
Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours or that others have given you. For many people, the giver is God, and in Judaism the act of thanking God for every day and every breath that we take is a central value of the religion.
Psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude, has examined the differences that people have in their relationship to gratefulness.
He found that there are intrinsic differences in the way people perceive and process their reactions to both negative daily hassles like sitting in a traffic jam or financial stress, or positive events like watching a sunset or taking a vacation.
He explains that people have different happiness set points: some people are generally grumpy – like Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza – while others seem to have a general positive view even when facing many of life’s daily hassles. Why do these differences exist? Emmons believes that these dispositions are formed by life experiences and/ or biological influences (genetics). It seems that some people are able to perceive the worst situation as an opportunity to take stock and count their blessings.
This is not to say that people with higher levels of gratitude do not feel angry, sad and/or depressed when tragedy strikes, but they see the positive in their lives in spite of their harsh experiences.
One thing for sure, people who show an ability to be positive and grateful when coping with life fare better in many health and psychological well-being indicators.
IN A 2014 Forbes magazine article, Amy Morin lists the scientifically proven benefits of gratitude.
• Helps foster new relationships: Research has found that saying thankyou to a stranger or new acquaintance makes the recipient want to continue with the relationship.
• Improves physical health: Grateful people take better care of their health and exercise more. One study found a drop in systolic blood pressure in people who were taught to practice gratitude.
• Improves psychological health: Emmons has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
• Enhances empathy and reduces aggression: People who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to seek revenge when given negative criticism.
• Improves sleep: People instructed to spend 15 minutes a day jotting down what they are grateful for before going to bed actually sleep better than control subjects.
• Improves self-esteem: Gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than feeling resentful towards people who have more of the things one may desire, grateful people are able to appreciate what they have in their own lives.
• Fosters mental resiliency: A major study published in Behavior Research and Therapy in 2006 found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. An earlier 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Counting your blessings, even during the worst times of your life, fosters recovery and resilience.
PROFESSIONALS IN the field of positive psychology believe that people can learn to develop gratitude. Below, I describe a few simple techniques that can help increase gratitude.
• Maintain a gratitude daily journal: Although there are different ways to do this, I suggest that before you go to sleep each night, write down three reasons why you feel grateful.
• Make a list of benefits in your life: Try to think about what is working well for you. This can be your relationship, your education or skills, your health.
Bringing those things to the forefront of your thoughts will stimulate the feelgood chemicals in your brain.
• Guided imagery: Imagine yourself in a relaxed place, and be thankful for the relaxation this provides. One client who closed her eyes was able to revisit her parents who had died when she was young and thank them for the time and love they were able to give her. This woman felt calmer after the exercise.
• Mindfulness: Be mindful of the small things in your daily life. Take some moments each day to focus on things such as your breath, the clouds, the smell of spring and the lines on a leaf. Too often we rush through our lives and we do not take the time to stop and look before we go.
Gratitude is a powerful skill to develop every day of your life. 
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy.