Gratitude: The Secret Ingredient in Joy & Well-Being

"It is gratefulness that makes us happy, not happiness that makes us grateful."

Brother David Steindl-Rast

It is logical to assume that gratitude flows naturally from joy. If you have all that joy swirling around, you’re bound to be grateful. Studies show that, instead, it is the practice of gratitude that leads toward the experience of joy and well-being.

The relationship between gratitude and joy was an unexpected finding in researcher Brené Brown’s interviews. As she summarizes in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown found that those individuals who identified themselves as joyful had an active, intentional practice of gratitude and attributed their joy to this practice.

"Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments— often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the burst of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments ."

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have found significant connections between an active gratitude practice and an experience of joy, well-being, and, even, physical health. Gratitude practice was associated with more regular exercise, sleep, progress toward personal goals, and an improved sense of connection to others. Gratitude practice was also associated with reduced depression and fewer reported physical symptoms.

This brief video from Tremendousness (thank you!) summarizes some of the wide range of findings associated with gratitude:

What is Gratitude?

1. Gratitude is a sense of thankfulness and appreciation.

2. Gratitude is a practice. We are used to seeing gratitude as a state, a feeling or a quality. Brown and others invite us to consider it as a practice. We can cultivate gratitude in order to feel it. It need not be naturally occurring or a passive process. We don’t need to wait for it to happen.

3. Gratitude is not limited by external or internal circumstances. We can practice gratitude in a context of abundance and we can practice gratitude in a state of depletion, challenge, and adversity. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, teacher and author, defines joy as "that happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens."

This is not denial. It is an and instead of a but. Both the difficult circumstances and the gratitude can co-exist. This also does not require silver-lining hardship. We do not have to embrace the adversity. While we’re dealing with adversity, we can also practice gratitude and we don’t have to hug the challenge.

4. Gratitude is an intentional awareness. It calls us to notice. Each of us has experiences everyday in which we are barely present. We have interactions with others, with our environment, with our inner world. A practice of gratitude invites us to slow down just a bit to be aware and capture some of those encounters and moments.

5. Gratitude does not need to be grand and it does not need to be about grand things. Gratitude is not gushing. It can be a gentle note of thankfulness. It can also be an appreciation in which we are moved deeply.

6. Gratitude can be practiced regularly. We do not need to wait for a holiday or special occasion. Gratitude can be a daily or weekly practice and it can be practiced year round.

Practicing Gratitude

There are many ways to practice gratitude. You can weave it into your day-to-day life by intentionally offering a sincere thank you more frequently during the day. You can set a reminder on your phone to prompt you to take a grateful moment. There are gratitude meditations. As for many things, there are apps. For the purposes of this piece, as a journaler and journal facilitator, I am going to highlight a handful of journal techniques.

1. Set an Intention for Gratitude: On a card, in your daily planner or in your journal, craft a statement of intention for your gratitude practice.

2. A Gratitude Journal: Daily or weekly, devote a regular time to reflecting upon appreciation. You can do this at bedtime to transition before letting go of wakefulness. You can do it as a morning ritual. It could be a nice addition to a lunch break. In the journal you will note 5 people, aspects of yourself, events or good things for which you are thankful. Take a moment to get centered. Prepare the list in a thoughtful manner versus just getting it done. Allow yourself to experience the gratitude. Challenge yourself to not repeat from yesterday or earlier in the week. Be specific about what it is in each item for which you are grateful.

3. Letters of Thanks: Positive psychology highlights the value of writing letters of gratitude to others. These can be letters to anyone, even those not here. They can be letters to aspects of ourselves we want to express thanks to. In the letter, write specifically about the things you are grateful for. These may be letters that are not sent. They may also be sent or delivered to the addressee. There are powerful aspects of the written word in addition to verbal statements of thanks.

4. 100 Things I’m Grateful For: Create a list of 100 appreciations. Write numbers 1-100 in list fashion. Go through creating the list in a sustained way, continuing to write, writing through that moment when you think you have nothing left. You can repeat. Keep writing until you hit 100. You can repeat. Once you have completed the list, take time to review your writing and write your reflections on the list and the experience. What surprised you? If you get excited about office products, you can pull out your highlighter collection and categorize themes in your list. Make a key of the colors and the themes. What do you notice?

5. Brother David’s : ABC’s of Grateful Living

Using the letters of the alphabet, write the first word that comes to mind for each letter then go back and write how each word connects to your own practice and experience of gratitude. For an example of this and wide range of information and additional practices, visit gratefulness.org.

6. Gratitude Prompts The Wellness Wheel: Considering 7 Core Areas of Health, list 3 items in each area for which you are grateful:

  1. Movement
  2. Environment
  3. Nutrition
  4. Sleep
  5. Resiliency
  6. Relationships
  7. Spirituality

7. Visual Journaling: Take a moment to reflect on gratitude and what you are grateful for. Make a grid in your journal. Draw, write, doodle or cut an image out from a magazine and paste something you are grateful for in each square. Or harvest images from magazines that speak to you of gratitude. These may be things you are grateful for. They may also be images that capture the experience of gratitude. Collage these images in your journal or on sturdy paper, card stock or poster board. You can use paint, gel pens, stickers to enhance. Take some time to reflect upon your finished piece in your journal. What feelings come up when you look at the collage? What is surprising? Are there themes that bubbled up or threads of connection? What does this exercise tell you about you?

bharrison-small Betsy Harrison, MA LCMHC is founding partner of Counseling Associates, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, a Certified Journal to the Self® Instructor and a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator. In addition to her clinical work, Betsy leads workshops on reflective writing, curiosity and creativity.


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