As the temperature begins to drop and we pull out boots and sweaters, our thoughts turn to the holidays and to reflecting on the things we appreciate. It feels almost obligatory that we identify the blessings in our lives and focus on what we have rather than what we lack. Gratitude can often become a seasonal exercise in perspective that we add to our to-do lists, along with holiday shopping and travel plans.
And while it can seem inauthentic to suddenly lean into the positive—especially for those of us who are glass-half-empty kind of people—research shows that there are some very real and tangible benefits of gratitude that should inspire us all to practice gratitude all year round.
You probably already know that gratitude makes us happier. But here are some other surprising reasons you may want to make the practice of gratitude a regular part of your everyday life:
- Gratitude has the power to enhance our careers, by increasing decision-making capabilities and helping us cultivate mentors and protégés.
- Gratitude reduces materialism. While it’s okay to strive for more, materialism can make us feel less competent, compromise our ability to appreciate what we do have, and make us more self-centered. Studies show that materialism correlates with reduced well-being and increased rates of depression.
- When we nurture gratitude, our brains perceive our environment as supportive, which reduces our insecurities and increases our self-esteem.
- Grateful people draw others toward them because they are kinder and friendlier, which builds a sense of self-worth for both parties.
- I was surprised to learn that gratitude improves our sleep, which I know is a struggle for many of us. When we focus on things we appreciate about our lives rather than our worries, our cortisol levels drop, and we are able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Similarly, gratitude increases our parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the “rest and digest” system.
- Gratitude makes our memories happier, by altering our cognitive biases. When we practice gratitude, we create more positive memories, but more interestingly, we can alter neutral or even negative memories.
- When we express gratitude for our partner’s or friends’ actions, we improve our relationships. That seems obvious, but too often we wait to be inspired to appreciate our special people, or it feels hard to be vulnerable in our expression of gratitude. We are all better off when we make an effort to find reasons to be grateful for their presence in our lives; then we will find we are inspired more often.
Gratitude is an essential element in Turning Point’s positive equation for achievement, and the reasons above demonstrate why—nurturing gratitude bestows benefits far beyond just giving us a “warm” feeling.
At our S.A.V.E.S. Assembly this morning, our fourth grade students shared things or experiences for which they were grateful. They looked past the obvious to include items they would not ordinarily appreciate: braces, broccoli, waiting on line at Disneyland. They were grateful to cultivate straight teeth, healthy lifestyle, and patience. Turning hardships into fodder for gratitude is especially meaningful.
The research on habit-forming is still evolving, but research psychologist Jeremy Dean learned that on average it can take 66 days to create a new habit—in other words, to make a desired behavior automatic. (More tips can be found in Making Habits, Breaking Habits.) I share with you three easy-to-adopt strategies that, if you begin to implement over the holidays, can be part of your successful New Year resolutions for 2019! Doing these alongside your child can help shift his or her mindset as well, creating more appreciation for life’s gifts among your whole family.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Even on bad days, good things happen. They might be as minor as the soft afternoon light illuminating the trees outside your window, an easy commute to work, or seat warmers on a chilly morning. When sometimes we feel the universe is poised against us, focusing on these moments helps you build a more positive worldview. Here are some tips from the Greater Good Science Center.
Mental Subtraction of Positive Events
This one involves first thinking of a positive event in your life, and the circumstances that enabled it. Then think about the ways this event might not have happened, and write down all the possible events and decisions that might have led to a different outcome. Imagine what your life might feel like had this event not happened, and then actively acknowledge that this event did happen and focus on the positive outcomes of this event. You can appreciate that this positive event was not inevitable and feel grateful for its occurrence.
Say “Thank You” to Others
Writing a Gratitude Letter to someone important in your life can be powerful. And reading it aloud, as opposed to sending it (which yields benefits, too), has proven to have the most impact on the recipient and the writer.
As you would imagine, gratitude is like exercise or any other healthy habit: you have to be consistent in its implementation to reap the benefits on a long-term basis, and you have to add enough variety to your routine to help you stay engaged and interested.
Recently, I was kneeling to help a Kindergarten student tie his shoe. When I looked up at him, he was pondering me curiously. He asked, “Are you in charge of the school?” I told him, yes, I was in charge. “Why?” he asked; before I could respond, he went on, “Is it because you love the school?” Children help us get to the heart of all we do that is good in our lives. I am grateful to all of you, who make Turning Point an easy place to love; a place I want to dedicate my attention, energy, and care. I hope you all have a happy and healthy holiday.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School