“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms
– to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The famous psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, relied on the power of gratitude to tell his story of surviving and enduring tragedies during the Holocaust in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. If there is one key takeaway from his work, it’s that life is not determined by the things that happen to us, it’s determined by how we respond to them. Frankl was able to find meaning and purpose in life by being grateful for simple things, like his memories, the sunset, and that he wasn’t suffering alone. These instances of gratitude allowed him to find happiness and hope to go on.
While practising gratitude can be helpful in managing difficult circumstances for many, it should not be relied on as our only form of support. It’s important to seek help from mental health professionals, friends and whānau, and take steps to look after our wellbeing in other ways. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to cope with life’s challenges – the most important thing is that we find what works best for us.
The science of gratitude
You might be thinking, “Not another article telling me to ‘Be grateful’ or to whip out my dusty old journal to write three things I’m grateful for today.” Gratitude might still seem like an airy-fairy concept for some people, given how much it is thrown around in the media and pop psychology.
As a team of clinical psychologists, researchers and organisational psychologists at Umbrella, we know from psychological research that expressing gratitude can boost psychological and physical wellbeing. A solid body of research has also shown that gratitude can lead to benefits, including:
- greater happiness and positive emotions
- reduced risk of depression
- improved ability to deal with adversity
- strengthened resilience (explore our Resilience workshop offerings at Umbrella)
- better formation and maintenance of relationships
- enhanced satisfaction with life.
Neuropsychologists also suggest that expressing gratitude can have long-lasting effects on the nervous system and in specific brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, which is important for emotion regulation and social reward.
The most commonly researched intervention is the “gratitude list”. This is where we list three to five things we’ve felt grateful for during the day, once a day or a few times a week. We can list them on paper (or on a device) or in our heads; we can list them by ourselves or with someone else. The simple yet effective exercise has been shown to promote positive emotions, life satisfaction, decrease stress, and reduce depression symptoms for many of the people who try it.
So, there are a myriad of benefits that practising gratitude can have for us and for those around us when it works for us, and when we do it well. But you may be asking yourself: How do I get started? How do I find the time to do this every day? What am I supposed to be doing?
How to cultivate gratitude
The best way to get started is by testing out what works best for you. Maybe try one of the exercises below a few times this week. If it doesn’t stick, considering trying a different technique. Slowly, as you find what works, start scheduling a time in your calendar to set aside for gratitude. Maybe the best time for this is on your commute to work, when you wake up, or right before you go to sleep.
Even when it’s hard, don’t forget to be grateful for events, or people, at work too. For many of us, we spend most of our waking hours at work and gratitude is fundamental to building positive work relationships, as well as feeling good about what we do. We also know from recent research that workers who exhibit higher levels of gratitude tend to provide greater support to others and contribute more to a supportive work environment.
There are lots of creative ways you can start cultivating gratitude in your life and in the workplace, which have been backed up by research.
- Counting blessings: This involves writing down five things you are grateful for, three times a week for at least two weeks. These “blessings” can be work related or it’s fine too if they’re more general comments.
- “Three good things”: Counting blessings not enough for you? This one dives a little deeper. Here, you write down three things that went well, but also try to identify why those good things happened. Reflect on their causes and what led you there.
- Mental subtraction: Imagine what your life would be like if particular positive events in your life had not happened. This helps with our tendency to often take positive occurrences for granted. You might be surprised when you think about how unlikely it was for a particular event to have happened, and how lucky you are that it happened the way it did.
- Gratitude letters and gratitude visits: It’s easy to forget to thank people in our lives properly. Time just slips by, and life goes on. Writing and delivering a letter of gratitude and appreciation in-person can feel hard, but it’s usually worth it. See if you can go the extra mile and read the letter aloud to the other person (embracing all the awkward feelings!).
- Guided meditation for gratitude: If you’re short of time, these quick guided meditations on YouTube are a great way to squeeze in a few minutes of your day to practise gratitude.
Gratitude is one tool that can help us to increase job and life satisfaction, cultivate a positive mood and improve wellbeing. So, what are you grateful for?
For more insights from Umbrella CE and clinical psychologist, Dr Dougal Sutherland, check out his interview on Stuff on how keeping a gratitude journal could make you a happier person.
We also have another interview from one of our facilitators and clinical psychologists, Lisa Cheung, on “Why journaling your thoughts could actually make you a happier person”.
If you have trouble building new habits, read our article on how to maintain healthy habits and stay consistent.