In his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming”, Henri Nouwen writes:
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds in bitterness.... I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.”
The evidence to date suggests that practicing gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being.
The book “The Psychology of Gratitude” shows that individuals who practice gratitude have a broader scope of attention, greater immunity, are happier, experience greater well-being, and are less prone to depression, stress, and anxiety. They are also more helpful, generous, and likely to cooperate.
Other studies have found that grateful people are more helpful, outgoing, pleasant to be around, and trustworthy.
According to Emmons and Stern, two well-known gratitude researchers, “gratitude functions to help regulate relationships by solidifying, affirming, and strengthening them.” These researchers argue that gratitude is primarily driven by two things: 1) The affirmation of goodness or “good things” in one’s life and 2) being fully aware that “the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”
The Counting Blessings Versus Burdens study is one of the best-known experiments, which sought to study the impact of gratitude journaling on psychological and physical well-being. In the experiment, 192 participants were divided into three groups:
The gratitude condition – Participants in the first group were asked to think about and list up to five things, both large and small, in their lives over the past week that they were grateful for.
The hassles condition – Participants in the second group were asked to think about and list up to five things that annoyed or bothered them during each specific day.
The events condition – Participants in the third group were asked to reflect on events and circumstances of the past week and list five that had an impact on them.
The researchers carried out a second experiment during which participants were expected to keep diaries on a daily basis for a two-week period. In a third, individuals with neuromuscular disease were assigned either to the gratitude condition or a control condition.
Overall, the study found that the participants in the gratitude condition were more “attentive, determined, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, interested, joyful, and strong.” In other words, if a conscious effort is made, gratitude can be learned.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions. A few authors of the “Handbook of Positive Psychology” have shown that meditation and mindfulness can promote gratitude. Other researchers found that gratitude could be increased by imagining a person requesting for and being given the gift of forgiveness.
Making gratitude a family routine
When you celebrate thanksgiving or ask your kids to write thank you letters, you teach them about gratitude and thankfulness. But in order to reap the associated psychological, physical, and social benefits, the habit of being grateful needs to be practiced consistently and consciously.
Here are five gratitude routines you can try with your family:
1 | Mealtime as a moment to be grateful
Saying grace before meals is a major religious tradition still practiced in many families. Even if you’re a non-religious family, mealtimes can still be a good moment to practice gratitude. For instance, every family member can say one thing he or she is grateful for before meals begin.
2 | Thankful day
Establishing a thankful day as a family is an awesome way to practice gratitude on a regular basis. For example, you can choose one day of the week (e.g. Thankful Tuesday) and have all members of the family write down the things for which they are grateful. All you need are markers or pens to write with and a large sheet of paper (or smaller papers glued together) that you can hang up or stick in a visible place, like the fridge.
3 | Celebrating family day
As a family, we don’t always tell each other the things we appreciate about each other and why we are thankful for them. Choose one day, weekly or monthly, where family members can share the things they appreciate about each other (playmate, partner in crime, defends me…).
4 | Morning gratitude routine
We can be grateful for thousands of things. As Charles Dickens said, “Reflect on your present blessings, of which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Having a morning routine during which everyone says one thing they’re grateful for makes it easier to adopt a grateful disposition and “stop to smell the roses.” It starts the morning right.
5 | Bedtime gratitude routine
As you tuck your kids in at night, ask them about the things in each day for which they are grateful. This teaches them to focus on simple, accessible things – having friends, being able to play with siblings, playing with toys, being able to read, having a roof over one’s head, favorite meals, etc.
The more frequently children – and adults – practice gratitude, the easier it becomes to develop a grateful disposition.