A daily reflection and gratitude practice has been shown to increase happiness and optimism scores by up to 150%. This isn’t just touchy-feely anecdote, either. The science backs it up dramatically. So what is gratitude, why does it matter and how do you do it most effectively? Let’s take a look.
Bad is stronger than good
You will have read many times in my articles and blogs that we are affected far more by negatives than we are by positives. This is important when managing people but it’s also important when managing ourselves. Negatives trigger our emotional brain far more acutely than positives. It’s called the Threat-Reward Response and is a throwback from our evolution. Threats have a greater effect because they are potentially life-threatening. So, our emotional brain really pays attention. We are also more likely to remember bad circumstances, as this served our survival in the past: if I got myself into a bad situation, it would be a good idea to remember how that happened!
But now that we no longer use this mechanism for survival, and most of our stress is phycological stress rather than physical stress, this Threat Response helps us to dwell on negatives that happened throughout our day. We might think about them for too long (even subconsciously) or even replay them in our mind.
Making Good Stronger Than Bad
One way we can counteract this effect of negatives is to do the opposite – focus on the positives. When we think about good things, we instead produce chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that make us feel content and happy. And – for reasons I can’t explain – research shows that actually writing these things down (as opposed to saying them or thinking about them) is the most effective mode of communication.
To get a little extra out of your gratitude practice, here are some tips:
We can be general or specific when it comes to gratitude and it seems that being more specific has a greater impact. For instance, maybe someone at work really helped you out today. It is tempting to just write:
I am grateful for Jocelyn
This feels ok and is absolutely better than nothing. But when we get more specific, we are more likely to be immersed in the ‘good’ of the situation. Try something like this:
I am grateful that Jocelyn supported my opinion in our meeting today
I am grateful that Jocelyn stayed late to help me get that proposal out to the client in time
You get the picture.
Feel Gratitude. Don’t just write
If you’ve tried to start a gratitude practice in the past, you know that it can sometimes feel like it just becomes repetitive and transactional. Like it’s something we think we should do and we need to just get it done and check the box.
While thinking about something comes quickly and easily, the feeling of something takes a little more time. To really get that dopamine and serotonin hit, try to immerse yourself in the situation that you are reflecting on and try to feel the emotion that is tied to it. Pause as you write and really relive the situation – feel the gratitude.
Have Some Structure with Prompts
When people write gratitude reflections at the end of the day (or at the start of the day, reflecting on the day before) we find that one of two things might happen. Either a) people get stumped about what to write and sit there starting into space for a while, or b) they just keep writing the same things over and over again. Having a structure to your thinking helps with this.
Tim Ferris is a renowned journal writer and he has this simple structure that you can use as a guide. Instead of trying to think of something random, he uses one of these categories:
- Relationships: An old relationship that really helped you or a new relationship you’re happy about
- An opportunity that you have/had today
- Something great that happened or you saw yesterday
- Something simple near you (clouds outside, pen you are holding, etc)
The Highest Level of Gratitude: Challenge
Most of the time we write about simple things that happened to us that we feel are good. But the highest level of gratitude is attained when we become grateful for challenges or adversity.
We can be grateful for adversity because it shows us who we are, makes us reprioritise, or brings us closer to people we love. There are a million ways to frame challenge and adversity in a positive light and when we practice our gratitude around these circumstances, we also practice our ability to think with a bit more clarity and positivity in challenging times.
Having a gratitude practice is one of the simplest, quickest things you can do to boost your mental and emotional wellbeing. Give it a try. You can also pick up one of our Focus Planner to help you incorporate this into your day.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.