Written by Jennifer Toof, Outpatient Therapist

It is a universal reality that we all want to be happy. Individuals may have different conceptions about what may make them happy based on their interests, values, and cultures, but what we all have in common, all across the world, is the desire to be happy. Since the topic of this blog post is gratitude, what is the connection between happiness and gratitude? Many people would say that it is simple: when you are happy, you are grateful. In reality, though, it is the opposite;  gratefulness actually makes us happy.

Gratitude is defined as the expression of appreciation for what one has. Whether these things are big or small, tangible or intangible, gratitude is acknowledging any goodness in our lives. However, acknowledging goodness can be difficult. If you ever feel like negative thoughts are your default, you are not alone. Our minds are equipped with a negativity bias, meaning that we tend to minimize the positive parts of our lives and focus on the negative parts of our lives, i.e. what we don’t have rather than we do have, or what went wrong today instead of what went right. Thankfully, our brains are flexible, and we can train them to focus on the positive. Practicing gratitude is like a cheat code for the brain that helps us focus on the positive and be happier.

There are many evidence-based benefits of cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’. Some of these benefits include: increased happiness and positive mood; enhanced self-esteem; less likelihood of experiencing burnout; being less materialistic; better physical health; better sleep; less fatigue; less anxiety and depression; and greater resiliency. Gratitude has tremendous social benefits as well, as it increases prosocial behaviors, makes individuals kinder to others, and strengthens relationships. A study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship. In the workplace, gratitude may increase job satisfaction and help employees’ effectiveness. A study found that managers who remembered to say “thank you” to the people who work for them had employees who were motivated to work harder.

Now that we have established that gratitude leads to happiness and many more benefits to one’s life, let’s talk about how to do it. There are infinite ways to show our gratitude to others and to ourselves, but it can be tough to get started without practical ideas. Below are some of the most well-known and proven ways to practice and enhance your gratitude.

1. Journaling

Writing down a few things you are grateful for is one of the easiest gratitude exercises. The purpose of the exercise is to reflect on the past day or week and remember 3-5 things you are especially grateful for. If you’re a more visual person, you can make a gratitude collage, taking pictures of all the things you’re grateful for. You can take a picture of one thing you’re grateful for every day for a week then take a look back at it at the end of the week.

2. Gratitude Jar or Box

This is another very simple exercise that can have profound effects on your well-being and outlook. You take a jar or a box, decorate it if you want, and, as often as you want, write things you’re grateful for on slips of paper and put them in there. You could put things in throughout the year and look at them on News Years Eve and reflect on the year.

3. Gratitude Prompts

Gratitude prompts are fill-in-the-blank statements, such as, “I am grateful for these three friends”, or “I am grateful for these three things I have in my home”. Here is a link to some gratitude prompts you can use, either in your personal journal or in speaking with others.

4. Gratitude Walk

A gratitude walk combines gratitude with meditation, exercise, and nature. The goal of a gratitude walk is to mindfully observe the things you sense around you as you walk while giving thanks for each of these things. You can take a gratitude walk alone or with someone else.

5. Gratitude Flower

This is a great creative one, particularly for kids or kids at heart. In a circle, write “Things I’m Thankful For.” Then, create flower petals emanating from the circle, and, on each petal, list something you are grateful for.

6. Gratitude Letter

A gratitude letter is probably the most powerful gratitude exercise. Essentially, you write a hand-written letter to a person you are particularly grateful to have in your life. Be detailed. Express all the wonderful qualities about this person and how they personally have affected your life for the better. Numerous studies have looked at the positive effects, on the writer, of composing a gratitude letter, finding that this activity significantly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. Interestingly, the mental health benefits of writing gratitude letters are not entirely dependent on actually communicating that gratitude to another person. So, if you’re thinking of writing a letter of gratitude to someone, but you’re unsure whether you want that person to read the letter, write it anyway. The mere act of writing the letter produces the positive effects.

I know that it may feel really hard to connect with gratitude and happiness in these trying times. I want to conclude by sharing that it is okay to embrace joy, even in difficult times. You have the right to be happy, and your being happy doesn’t mean you don’t care about important things or that you aren’t sensitive to those around you. Just like with self-care, practicing gratitude is NOT selfish. Gratitude leads to happiness, which makes you better able to care for yourself and others.

About the author: Jennifer Toof, MA, works in outpatient services at Child Guidance Resource Centers in Havertown. Jennifer is pursuing a PhD in International Psychology from the The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is involved in numerous advocacy efforts and organizations on the local and national level and is committed to actions that improve the mental health and well-being of all.