Read time: 75 minutes

A Complete Guide to What Gratitudes are, the process involved and how they help us.

Who remembers their parents telling them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you?’ As a child, chances are you did this not because you wanted to, but because it satisfied our parents. So were we really grateful or were we just doing as we were told?

The deliberate act of being grateful is much more than the learned behaviour of thanking someone who held the door open for us. It is a conscious act with the intention of showing, doing and crucially feeling grateful for our life, those around us and our lifestyle.

Harvard Medical School suggests Gratitudes are:

“a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives… As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature or a higher power”.

Personally, when I’m practicing gratitude, the results are feelings which resemble romantic love. I imagine it is also close to the feeling of grace.

What is the Modern Day Act of Gratitude?:

Leading Gratitude Psychologist, Dr. Robery Emmons, suggests there are two stages to gratitude practice:
1. Acknowledging the goodness in one’s life.
2. Recognising that some of the source of this goodness, lies outside ourselves.

To do this we can either:

1. Think/list things we are grateful for.
2. Deliberately go out and thank people for things they have done for us.

The History of Gratitudes:

Although this may be a fashionable activity in the twenty-first century, gratitudes are by no means a new concept.

Both the ancient Philosophers, Cicero and Seneca, labeled gratitudes as a crucial virtue which goes some way to creating a successful civilization. Cicero went on to call gratitudes the mother of all the other virtues.

Historically the religons of Christianity, Islam and Judaism see gratitudes as a way of thanking their God.

Those who follow Yahweh, are encouraged to begin their day by being grateful for waking up. While Christians see being grateful to their God as a way of also forging a common bond between themselves.

Islam puts an even greater slant on the importance of gratitudes as the purpose of each of the five daily prayers is to show gratitude towards Allah.

In Buddhism gratitudes are seen as a way to connect practitioners to their past, and as someone who is currently studying for their Yoga Teacher Training Qualification, I have even found suggestions of this practice in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. (A text that could have been written as early as 300BC).

Sutras II.42 (which can be loosely translated means ‘rule 2.42’) can be translated as:

Supreme Joy is Attained Through the Practice of Gratitude.

(Head to Weekly Sutra for a greater explanation on this sutra.)

Historically, we have also seen whole nations practice acts of gratefulness. For example, the Native American Indians thank the animal they have hunted for its sacrifice before eating it. While, the ancestors of North American settlers still practice Thanksgiving today.

Clearly, gratitude has long been considered important and our interest in it is not diminishing. So why has it survived so long and what does modern science think about this practice?

The Psychology Behind Gratitudes?

So here is the big question, why should you do gratitudes, what benefits will it give you?

In a 2003 study by Arthur C Brooks, he asked one group of people to keep a weekly list of things they were grateful. He then asked a second group to keep a list of things they did not like. The results showed that the first group exhibited increased well-being levels. Surely it is not surprising that you would feel happier if you are looking for the good things in your life as opposed to looking for bad things. However, we all know people who walk around with an air of negativity so it is clearly harder than it sounds.

I would suggest that maybe Brooks had also recorded the results of the spiritual law known as the Law of Attraction. This law explains that what we focus on, we get more of. Did group one see more positive things simply because they focused on it (could it be that easy).

A few years earlier, in 1998, 45 adults were taught to ‘cultivate appreciation’ along with other positive emotions. After the study, results showed a 23% reduction in the stress hormone Cortisol.

The research also found an 80% improvement in the heart rate coherence of those who took part. This is a matching of the heart rate to the breath which naturally reduces stress levels.These findings therefore show an ‘attitude of gratitude’ appears to lower stress levels.

Gratitude Study on the Mentally Ill:

Many of the studies into the benefits of a gratitude practice have been done on mentally stable people, who could potentially already have a sunny disposition. Therefore it is important to see what effects this action has on those with mental illness, as the results, if any, could be much more profound.

In many countries mental health problems are on the rise, and sadly, funding to support such cases is lacking. This motivated one group of Psychologists to find inexpensive ways sufferers could help themselves in their own recovery.

In a Greater Good article by Berkeley University, Joem Wong and Joshua Brown highlighted a study that looked into this. The university took three groups of participants who all attended the campus for counselling. However the first group was also asked to write a letter of gratitude once a week to someone they knew. They did this for 3 weeks. The second group were asked to write about negative experiences in their lives for that 3 weeks, and the third group did not have to write anything.

Compared to the other two groups, those who wrote gratitudes letters reported significantly better mental health for the following 4 to 12 weeks.

This clearly shows the potential benefits for those with mental health problems, but it also shows the effects of the practice lasts a lot longer than the practice itself.

How Gratitudes are good for you:

Time for an Infographic!: On researching this subject I found so many examples of why gratitudes are good for us, that an infographic seemed the best way to show this information.

Dr. Robery Emmons is the leading Psychologist in the field of gratitude. The information on the right highlights how the practice of gratitude can help people.

Now let’s also include the benefits that Psychology Today highlight:

  • More aware
  • More engaged
  • Personal growth
  • Self-acceptance
  • Stronger feelings of purchase, meaning and specialness

You may question why some of the points they cover would be affected by practicing gratitude. For examples, Emmons gives lots of physical benefits, while Burton suggest people are more aware.

From my understanding, I would suggest a lot of the benefits involved are based around consciousness. When we are conscious our brain states comes out of the high beta (the brainwave we are in when stressed) and into the more stable, standard beta state. This is our natural waking state which is much healthier for us.

In this brain wave state, we are free from stress and can reason better. If you want to read more on how this can affect us head to our article on Negative thoughts. This calming state also allows the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. From there our ‘rest and digest’ function kicks in which helps with healing and recovery.

Gratitude Helps us Stay in the Present Moment:

Eckhart Tolle famously outlines in his book ‘The Power of Now’ how important it is to stop focusing on the past and the future (as we cannot change or control those). Instead he suggests we should focus on the now. In essence, right now all is well, and therefore by focusing on that we can be truly happy.

In doing a Gratitude practice we naturally stop looking to the future and believing we will be happy once our dreams are realised (the ideal house, the perfect partner and the dream job). Instead we focus on the here and now and what we have today.

This is a fundamental spiritual concept which is particularly important in today’s society. The materialistic world tell us we will be happy once we purchase that next thing. However the newness effect soon disappears and we start looking for the next thing that will make us happy.

Consider how quickly the novelty of your last car purchase wore off. We build up to big purchases like this as if they’re life changing/improving events, but within a few weeks or months the novelty has worn off and we need to focus on the next physical thing which will improve our life once we consume it.

Buddist monks routinely live with very little, as they understand posessions will not help them achieve enlightenment. They understand that by finding ways to focus on the now (like practicing gratitude) the need for material goods goes away and they will be happy with what they have and who they are in the present moment. In fact they soon stop caring about their posessions all together.

But What if I have Nothing to be Grateful for:

Many teachings in the spiritual and personal development field, state you need to act like you already have what you want for it to be able to come into your life (ie the Law of Attraction). This is so your energetic body is at the same level of that ‘thing’ you want and therefore it can come into your life.

That means to create a happy mindset, it is important to practice happiness even when you don’t feel it. In a 1993 study by Brooks he found that both voluntary and involuntary smiling had the same effect on the brain. In essence, the brain does not know what is real and what is an illusion so if you are forcing a smile it will still release the happy hormone and therefore induce happiness in your body whether you started off happy or not.

Personal Experience

Like so many people I got into Self Development through a close bereavement.

At that time I was in my second year of Uni and I knew I needed to look after myself if I wanted to keep my positive nature and pass that year. I knew exercise would release happy hormones and I knew if I booked a class with someone, I wouldn’t want to let them down, so I found a way to afford a personal trainer. I decided that would keep me at some level of happy while I went through the grieving process.

I think I did this for about 3 months and it definitely gave me a positivity boost at a time when, like anyone, sadness was my default state.

My personal trainer knew I was attending for this reason, so she suggested I smile even when I didn’t want to. I did feel silly at times and it felt like I was walking around with a silly cheshire cat smile but it definitely works.

Give it a go now, start smiling and literally you can feel the happy hormones going through the body.

The final point to make here is that being grateful is like being on a happiness spiral. Once you start being grateful, that releases happy hormones which open you up to more positive thoughts. As you get happier and happier, you see more things to be grateful for and up the spiral you go.

Will Gratitudes Really Make a Difference

Have I convinced you yet or are you still questioning why you should prioritise gratitude over other spiritual practices. Well apart from all the physical and emotional reasons we have already stated above, there is one major reason I want to highlight:

Gratitudes will make you happier!

 

… And surely we all want to be happier!?!

 

Happiness only comes from being happy with the person we are right now. The problem is most people would dismiss even starting a gratitude journal because they have given up searching for true happiness.

In our post about negative thought patterns, we talk through a process called the Memorised Emotional Pattern which explains how repeating similar negative thoughts over time can become subconscious thought patterns. Once those patterns are in our subconscious they are a lot harder to single out and change.

That means it can be common for adults to feel they are becoming more negative over the years and not really understand how they got there.

I’m sure you would agree, If you don’t know how you got there making changes can be hard. In addition to that, we know that the law of attraction says focusing on the negative attracts more negative (you become wired to see the negatives in life). Once this has played out enough and one thing after another happens to you, it makes it easier to give up trying to make positive changes. This behaviour is called ‘Learned Helplessness’. In essence your life situation teaches you that you cannot make positive changes, you cannot be happy!

Health practitioner, Emmett E. Miller argues in the book ‘Gratitude’ by Louise Hay that if you can learn to be more negative, luckily that implies you can learn to be happier. She says focusing on being grateful is one way to do that.

Can you really become Happier Through Deliberate Actions?

I understand many people can feel overwhelmed by Learned Helplessness and feel there is no point trying to change.

Luckily the facts would say it is definitely worth giving it a go.

In 2005 US Psychologists, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon and David Schkade, published their research on ‘Pursuing Happiness’. Within their research they found that we humans have an emotional set point. Their research suggested this can go up and down for short periods of time but generally our happiness levels stay at the same level.

Interestingly, they also found that our upbringing and current circumstance only accounts for 10% of our happiness level, and therefore is less directly correlated as many of us would think (me included).

You will see the final part of the pie chart is called ‘Intentional Activity’. At 40% the psychologists explained that this refers to deliberate activities we can do to improve our happiness levels.

That means almost half of our happiness levels, can be adjusted by carrying out activities that make us happier so it’s clearly well worth giving it a go.

…And heads up guys, they also list gratitudes as one of the intentional activities!

Beginners Step by Step Guide to doing your Gratitudes

Hopefully by now I’ve created a strong argument as to why this practice should be on your to-do list.

Now it’s time for me to explain what you have to do.

This couldn’t be easier, the aim it to focus on things you are grateful for. It is as easy as that.

In fact you could just start listing things in your head right now and that would be good enough.

However… if you are going to do it you may as well get the most out of it. So, like many spiritual practices, the act of physically doing an intentional action will create a more powerful outcome.

In this case, that would be doing one of these three things:

  1. Write a list of everything you are grateful for.
  2. Write someone a thank you letter.
  3. Do a Heart Rate Coherence Meditation.

www.thehappinessplanner.co.uk

Gratitude Activity One: Gratitude Lists and Gratitude Journals

The most common way to do gratitudes is by creating a list of things you are grateful for. The high street is full of gratitude journals which normally ask you to list three things you are really grateful for each day.

I have used these lots of times and I do love them, but you can create a deeper practice than they allow. By that I mean asking the simple questions ‘What are you grateful for today?’ does not make you think for very long. In fact I’m even guilty of just listing the first things that come to my mind:

  • My husband
  • My cat
  • My favourite TV program

Yes those points are all things to be grateful for but being asked in such a simplistic way does not invite you to really take the time and consider your day.

One of the key points of gratitude practice is taking the time to think of all the positive things that happened that day and then picking your highlights. By bringing up multiple positive experiences we:

  1. Realise just how many positive things happened to us.
  2. Release those happy hormones which instantly brighten up our mood and reduce our stress levels.
  3. Tell the universe what we liked about our day and what we want more of (this is where gratitudes also act as a law of attraction activity).

So instead of rushing through your gratitude journal in five minutes flat, take an extra ten to fifteen minutes to think up as many things as possible. Then if you want to conclude with your top three that is fine. (I task you to try and think up three different things each day.)

We have created some free Gratitude journal pages for you which you can download by adding your name and email address to the button below.

That means you can start your new practice tonight!

Why should you do your gratitude practice at night?

Well firstly you need to have gone through your day to be able to make a list, but more importantly, if you up your happiness levels before bed then you should have a better night sleep and wake up in a more positive mood the next day.

Note: Once you add your details and please ‘send me my free gratitude pages’ you will then receive an email to your inbox asking you to confirm your details. Once you do that our free PDF gratitudes pages will be emailed to your inbox. You will see we have tried to create a few different options so you can pick the gratitude pages which best suit you.

Gratitude Activity Two: Write a Thank You Letter

Throughout my research on this subject, I found numerous psychology studies that highlighted the positive outcomes of a thank you letter. These letters don’t have to be long, in fact a note on the back of postcard is enough. And they don’t physically have to be posted to the recipient. The Berkeley University Researchers I mentioned earlier (Joel Wong and Joshua Brown), noted that the writer of the letter will experience the feelings of gratitude whether they send the letter or not.

So time to head out and get yourself some new stationary and get writing those thank you letters.

Gratitude Activity Three: Heart Rate Coherence Meditation

If you want to go even deeper and really feel the physical emotions attached to gratitude, then a Heart Rate Coherence Meditation would be the perfect option.

Heart Rate Coherence is a specific meditation created by the HeartMath Institute. I am a major fan of this meditation because you don’t have to do the process for long, 3 minutes is enough to really feel the benefits. So it is a very practical option for the modern world.

I have written more about their process and the tools they offer to deepen your practice here so for now I’m just going to give a quick outline.

In essence this is an appreciation meditation. That means you meditate on something in your life you appreciate and are grateful for. Once you have thought of something to meditate on, you then focus on your breath and then you move that focus to the heart.

When you do this, your breath and heart rate match each other. The outcome is a feeling of pure love which is euphoric and lasts a long time, having numerous positive emotional and physical outcomes.

Advanced Gratitudes Practice:

The three different practices above are the ‘standard’ options with list building being the most popular.

However as I have found with most spiritual practices, it won’t work unless the practitioner has all the facts and sadly that means they may give up.

Subconscious Beliefs:

Films like The Secret make the Law of Attraction and other spiritual practices (like gratitudes) seem very straight forward. The fact is, the laws are simple but us humans are not. The Secret suggests we simply need to think of what we want in our lives, act like we already have them and then they will appear in physical form.

Sadly they don’t explain that if we have conflicting beliefs, then those beliefs can stop our dreams manifesting.

For example, many people dream of having more money. However the law of attraction cannot help us if our subconscious beliefs are in conflict with the thought ‘I want more money’.

For example, many people, myself included, were told as a child untruths, like: people with money are bad and you must work hard to be rich, it shouldn’t just come to you easily. Naturally with those subconscious thoughts being present, they will stop abundance coming into your life easily.

Don’t forget the subconscious mind takes up 95% of the brain. While our conscious thoughts (the part that is wishing for a million pounds), resides in the remaining 5%.

 

The lesson here is that we must consider our subconscious mind when we are consciously trying to make positive change.

This is the case for gratitude too. Consciously, we could be trying to think up things to be happy about. While our subconscious is undermining us with a lovely list of reasons for why we should be sad.

If you find it hard to be grateful, or you are finding the action of being grateful is not attracting more things to be grateful for, then it’s more than likely your subconscious could be playing a part.

It could be that some work overcoming these negative thought patterns is needed (SEE THIS BLOG POST), however, remember the pie chart that said 40% of our happiness levels can be changed via intentional activities. So while you do the work to eliminate past subconscious beliefs, please keep making your gratitude lists, as together, both things will be making a difference. The science of neuro-plasticity states that we can consciously rewire the brain with new behaviours.

Advanced Gratitude Practice One: Rampage of Appreciation

If you feel your gratitude practice is not making a big enough change to your happiness levels, or you are seeing changes and you want to up the ante, then I would suggest trying a more powerful gratitude activity, called Rampage of Appreciation.

Created by Esther and Abraham Hicks this activity is simply an epic gratitude list. In fact the aim is still to create a list of things you are grateful for but this time the aim is to fill several sheets of A4.

As you can imagine, the more you write down, the harder it becomes. That means after a while, you really have to consider what to write. It should result in you writing about the little things in life, the things we forget but that are also more significant, like:

  • Our arms and legs
  • The blood pumping through our veins
  • Our eyesight
  • Breathing
  • Where we live
  • Our ancestors
  • Our comfy beds
  • The weather
  • Water
  • Bees pollinating the plants
  • Our plants

… you get the picture.

The main aim of gratitude is to realise just how blessed we are to be on the planet. A Rampage of Appreciation is a fast track to that frame of mind. Remind yourself that the fact you are here is a miracle alone when the odds of being born are 1 in 400 trillion!

At the same time the amount of things we are listing, builds a powerful, positive, emotional momentum in the body that can counteract any negative subconscious programming.

Advanced Gratitude Practice Two: State the Reasons Why

Another way to progress your practice is to also add the reason why you are grateful. For example, why you are specifically grateful for the chat you had with your sister today. What parts of your job did you like today, and what was it exactly about your dinner which made it so special.

The more specific you are about what you love in your life, the more the universe knows what to send you more of.

Advanced Gratitude Practice Three: Practicing gratitude for Past and Future events

So this is in slight contradiction to some previous advice we gave in this post, but don’t worry, I’ll explain why.

Previously, I’d highlighted how practicing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ can help us focus on the present moment and stop us regretting the past or worrying about the future.

At the beginning of your practice, focusing on the now is crucial, as it will reduce your stress levels and help you have greater perspective on events.

Once you are at that point, now you can start incorporating the themes of past and/or future events in your practice.

The Past: The overarching aim when you look at your past is to become grateful for everything that has happened to you up to this point.

Now I’m sure you can think of lots of past event you would struggle to be grateful for. Within many of the self development books I’ve read, the talks I’ve attended and the spiritual texts I’ve learnt, they all say the same thing, and that is learning to be OK with those negative events and even finding the lessons they have given us allows us to move forward.

For anyone suffering from past trauma, this concept can be extremely triggering. Easy for me to say, you may think, what do I know!?! I understand and all I can say is I have had to do this process myself and it’s not easy. You will also find it is a lot easier to find the lessons in experiences rather than others. Remember this is an advanced technique and not one you have to take up now. I’m just presenting all the options so one day, when the time is right, you may want to give it a try.

The Future: The more fun, enjoyable practice is to focus on the future. This is very much a gratitude practise mixed with visualization.

WRITE A VISUALIZATION MEDITATION ON THIS SUBJECT

Basically the idea is to sit in a state of meditation and start visualizing your perfect life. While you are doing this, the aim is to act like you already have it and you are being grateful for what has already been given to you.

This then alters your vibration to the same vibration as that lifestyle, so it has the chance to enter your consciousness. For this process I’d suggest being as specific as you can about what that dream life looks like so the universe knows just what you want.

Advanced Gratitude Practice Four: Practising Gratitude for Current Events You Do Not Like

If you are reading this, then chances are spirituality is very important to you. It most likely also means you believe we are here to learn lessons and maybe that this is not our only lifetime. If you take this viewpoint then it is easier to understand that any current negative experience is part of our life lessons. It does not okay the event but it can bring about some understanding and healing.

Alternatively, you may be okay but you see others sufferings. Through her lifetime Mother Thersea saw some of the worst parts of humanity play out and yet her outlook and understanding still inspires us today. She talks about her gratitude to the people she was helping, the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta, because they enabled her to grow and deepen her spirituality.

If you want to practice truly advanced gratitude practices, the key is to consider the areas of your life where gratitude is harder and see if you can find the hidden blessings. The famous Psychologist Carl Jung clearly understood the importance in finding the positive in a negative situation when he said: Lets open a bottle of wine. Something good will come of things.

Why People Find Gratitudes Hard:

I wanted to finish this post by acknowledging that some people can find gratitudes a hard concept to get their heads around.

This process does come in direct conflict with our ego, who wants to take credit for everything we have achieved. However, once you start to really think of things you are grateful for, it soon becomes clear just how much we are supported by the outside world and how many people may have helped us become the person we are today. That means acknowledging that maybe our achievements are not solely our own making.

Many articles I have read about this subject highlight that this conflict makes the practice of gratitude hard for some people. Our egos may not like this truth, however it does also highlight to us just how much we are loved and supported; which I believe is much more important!

 

Summary:

To conclude, research shows there are numerous emotional and physical benefits to gratitude practices.

The three practices suggested in this post are:
  • Writing a list of things you are grateful for.
  • Writing thank you letters.
  • Practicing a Heart Coherence Meditation.

The most popular option is creating a gratitude list. An advanced adaptation of this is a Rampage of Appreciation.

Other advanced gratitude practices, involve finding the lessons in upsetting current or past events, and using a gratitude visualization as a law of attraction tool to attract things into your life you would like more of.

Final Note:

If you want to read more on the theme of gratitude, head over to our Pinterest Board on this subject for more inspiration.

Finally, don’t forget to download our free gratitude journal pages so you can get going on your new gratitude practice today.

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