I was going through a rough patch and calling my lifelines. My friend Peggy listened, sympathized, then gave me an order: start keeping a gratitude journal. Five things, every day.
I didn’t that day, but her insistence stayed with me. One night at bedtime, I opened a little journal I’d bought on sale and started.
1. A fairly decent night’s sleep
2. Seeing Ratatouille with my family
3. Making dinner from what we had in the house
4. Talking to Dad and making him laugh
5. Clean sheets
It’s a fitting coincidence that the first entry mentions the previous night’s sleep and anticipates the coming night’s, because studies show that better sleep is one of many benefits of practicing gratitude.
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More Gratitude = Better Sleep
“If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep,” writes Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher at the University of California at Davis, in his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
In a 2003 study, Emmons and colleague Michael McCullough of the University of Miami observed that those who wrote five things before bedtime once a week experienced sounder sleep, exercised more, felt more optimistic about the coming week and even made more progress on important personal goals.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others,” Roman statesman Cicero observed.
One study, which defined gratitude as an emotion of appreciation for other people’s helpful acts, found that it encouraged moral behavior in ways that strengthened societal bonds.
Another study, by researchers Alex M. Wood, Jeffrey J. Froh and Adam W.A. Geraghty, broadened that definition after reading what people actually wrote in their gratitude journals.
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Gratitude also encompasses awe (such as seeing a sunrise); abundance (a stocked pantry, having all the children home for a holiday); appreciation for the present moment (a good cup of coffee, a lunch date, clean sheets); a sense of good fortune (it could be worse) and more.
5 Ways to Build Your Gratitude Muscle
There are many ways to develop and build the gratitude muscle. Here are five:
1. Keep a daily gratitude journal
All it takes is a notebook, a pen or pencil, and a few moments to reflect back over the day and think about what moments stood out. Keeping the journal in one place (like a nightstand) and connecting it with another daily habit (like getting into bed) will help to establish a routine.
There are general categories we might be thankful for any day: family, good health, a job, a cozy home, friends. Examining the events of each individual day brings attentiveness, noticing the little things that make each day unlike any before or to come.
A gratitude journal is personal, but it doesn’t have to be. Last summer I started sharing mine on Facebook and asking others, “How was your day?” or “What were you thankful for/glad about today?” Responses are sometimes serious, sometimes playful, often surprising.
One caveat: publicizing changes things. The things you write in a personal gratitude journal might be too, well, personal for a public list. But a public list is a great way to play with the form, such as a list of things beginning with the same letter, or a list based on the senses — a smell, a taste, a touch, a sound, a sight.
2. Send someone a free gratitude gram
The increasing popularity of gratitude is driving new, creative and communal ways to express it. Whether you’re ready to commit to a gratitude journal or not, you can give that muscle a little flex — and maybe make someone’s day — at elementofgratitude.org. Simply upload a photo or video, choose a photo-effects filter, type a message of thanks and choose its destination — email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or any combination of the above. The site’s Gratitude Wall has examples of messages others have sent.
The messages are imprinted with #ThksLeads2Giving, which refers to another demonstrated outcome of gratitude. Some studies have shown that those who practice it also become more generous.
3. Say thank you to people in daily life
It’s easy to say "thanks" to the clerk handing you coffee through the drive-through window, the kid bagging your groceries or someone holding a door open for you.
It’s almost as easy to say "thank you" to other folks for the specific things they do; it just takes a little more imagination. Thanking a spouse for buttering the bread all the way out to the corners. Thanking a co-worker for asking you to take another crack at something instead of changing it herself. Thanking a child for his help in folding the towels. When I go to a movie on Christmas day, I thank the concession-stand workers and ticket takers for working on a holiday.
4. Be grateful for the hard stuff, too
Three years ago, I was driving home from work when a driver in a large pickup ran a red light, right into my car. It spun me sideways and my brakes failed, so I did an impromptu tour of a pedestrian mall (thankfully, it was after 10 at night, so there were no pedestrians) before I came to a stop.
The car was drivable, but needed work. I was ambulatory, but needed a little bit of work, too. In the following months — getting my car taken care of, getting myself to the physical therapist and still working 40 hours a week — I saw that I could fit more than I’d thought into the time I had.
When an opportunity came along to write a book on a tight deadline, I was able to say "yes" and to deliver, partly because of the discipline of time management that came from the accident.
The lost job that led to something better, the dish we wouldn’t have discovered if the restaurant wasn’t out of what we wanted, the wrong turn that led to a scenic overlook — they can all be occasions for gratitude, even though sometimes we don’t see it until months or years later.
It’s more of a workout, like a brisk pace on an inclined treadmill, to be grateful for the hard stuff that doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a strong muscle indeed that can be grateful for being humbled, for someone else getting something we wanted, for corrections to our course.
5. Write a letter to someone who has helped you
Mentors are an obvious choice, whether it’s someone who’s given us a recent career boost or the teacher who helped us love books by reading to us after lunch in fifth grade. Maybe it’s the cheerfulness and amazing memory of the worker at the doughnut shop.
(MORE: Why You Should Just Say “Thank You”)
Write a letter telling that person, in detail, what you are thankful for. If you’re able (geographically and emotionally), deliver it and read it aloud. It will make their day, and probably make yours, too.
It’s been 7 1/2 years since I first took Peggy’s advice. I’m in my ninth gratitude journal now. Yesterday:
1. Walkie-talkieing (with Voxer) all the way to Canada
2. The deepened joy apparent in a new mom's face
3. Finding that missing little black T-shirt
4. Sounds that signal readiness (the final sigh of the coffeepot, the ejector button of the toaster)
5. Knowing a factoid that affirmed an editing decision
Gratitude is a muscle that, it turns out, likes to be exercised. Peggy was right. It’s habit-forming. In the very best ways.