The greatest tool needed to create the life you want is already inside of you—it is the power of your thoughts. You’ve likely heard the saying, “As you think, so shall you become.” It is both true and empowering. You have the power to decide how it works for you, or if it will work against you. Our thoughts are perhaps one of the only things we actually have control of in this life, and the more intentional we become about the thoughts we keep, the more beneficial they become.
Here is what you may not know about the way your brain works. There is a system in your mind that assigns a level of importance to all the things you tell it to. It is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), and it is always on and always working. What it focuses on is up to you. The simplest way to describe the RAS and how it works is for you to think about the last car you bought. Before you bought that car, you likely saw it but never paid much attention to it. After you bought that specific make and model, it is as if the rest of the world did, too, because you began seeing it everywhere. Your RAS programmed your mind to seek out that car because it had now been labeled as “important” in your mind.
Programming Your Mind to Create an Attitude of Gratitude
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” —Zig Ziglar
This quote sums up why we should practice gratitude daily, but let’s go a little deeper into the actual brain. Two important regions of the brain are stimulated by gratitude practices: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure. Basically, the more regularly we express gratitude, the less stress we feel and the more feelings of pleasure we are likely to experience.
Here is what research says about the benefits of maintaining an attitude of gratitude. Amy Morin’s 2014 article in Forbes revealed these seven scientifically proven benefits of a gratitude practice:
1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships.
Not only does saying “thank you” constitute good manners, but showing appreciation can help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion. The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship.
2. Gratitude improves physical health.
Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors, which is likely to contribute to further longevity.
3. Gratitude improves psychological health.
Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression.
Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kind, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
5. Grateful people sleep better.
Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.
6. Gratitude improves self-esteem.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased an athlete’s self-esteem, which is an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs—which is a major factor in reduced self-esteem—grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
7. Gratitude increases mental strength.
For years, research has shown that gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Similarly, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for, even during the worst times of your life, fosters resilience.
3 Tips to Improve Your Gratitude Practice
Convinced? So, how can you practice gratitude with intention and focus? Here are my three top tips.
1. Start with your basic human needs.
Oftentimes, people are looking for the big things in life to be grateful for and overlook the small, seemingly insignificant things that we experience daily. It is the simple things in life that truly enhance our sense of gratitude. Think of it this way: if you can’t find gratitude in the small things, you will not likely feel a true sense of gratitude for the big things. Learn to appreciate and give thanks for the food on your table, running (hot) water, and the clothes on your back. You are a short car ride away from people who don’t enjoy these “luxuries” on a daily basis.
2. Keep a gratitude journal.
I could write another article all about the benefits of writing things down in a journal as opposed to reciting them in your mind. Not only do you activate and involve more senses and become more conscious when you write down your gratitude list, you also have the benefit of returning to the list as many times as you would like. On days when I struggle to complete my gratitude list, I flip back a few pages and borrow gratitude from a previous entry in my journal. Whether you are using my new Focus Journal with guided prompts or a regular notebook, your gratitude practice will improve when you set intentional time aside to write it down. It should be noted that doing a written gratitude practice a few times per week has been shown to be more beneficial than a daily practice. So the next time you start feeling down on yourself for missing a few days, remind yourself of this fact. Aim to do a written practice every other day, and never more than three days between your sessions.
3. Pay attention to details.
You may have seen or heard of gratitude practices that have you list 10 or even 20 things you are grateful for each day. Research has proven, not just in this arena, that more is not always better. In fact, the more things on your list, the less likely you are to not just remember what is on the list, but actually feel grateful for them. That’s right—there is a difference in simply voicing gratitude for something and actually feeling grateful for those things. One way to deepen your sense of gratitude is to get into the details of that thing, person, place, or event. Keep your list simple, preferably 3 to 5 things, and then write a few sentences about why you are grateful for that item on your list. This is another reason that keeping a journal enhances your practice. When you add details to the things you are grateful for, the feeling of gratitude deepens.
► You’ll also like: 10 Gratitude Quotes Perfect for Thanksgiving
Start Fresh or Begin Again
One of the hardest parts of keeping a gratitude journal is actually remembering to do it. Maybe you’ve kept a gratitude journal in the past but fell away from the practice. Perhaps you are starting for the very first time. It doesn’t matter what stage you are at in the process—it’s always a good time to become more grateful in your life. It’s called a practice for a reason, and the more you practice anything, the better you become at it. Improve your practice by scheduling time to write and keeping your journal by your nightstand or another visible place to help remind you. And remember, it is less about the things on your list and more about the time you invested in being more intentional to voice your gratitude.
To learn more about Craig T. Smith, LCSW, visit greatestdaymindset.com. To purchase FOCUS: A Guided Journal to Create Lasting Change in Your Life, a 90-day journal containing guided prompts surrounding gratitude, personal victories, positive affirmations, and open reflection to help you create lasting change in your life, visit greatestdaymindset.com or amazon.com.