In regards to #trending, I usually prefer to be a bit on the early adopter edge and my appreciation for something can be, and has often been, lessened as it becomes incredibly mainstream or overdone. Many times a concept or idea which was originally quite powerful, transformative, or transcendent can become stale, diluted, or cheesy as it reaches a point of oversaturation. However, despite of the fact that messages of gratitude are ubiquitous this week in light of Thanksgiving over in the US of A, I find it a topic too important to skip over. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays – it involves copious amounts of fall foods, time with family and friends in a much less commercialized way than Christmas has sadly become, and, as the name implies, it’s all about being thankful and grateful for what we have. And gratitude is far from cliché. In fact, the vast majority of research and anecdotal evidence indicates that thankfulness is a key contributor, if not a precursor, to happiness.
“Cultivating gratitude” may seem new and trendy, but it has been an important area of focus for literally thousands of years in realms of spirituality, religion, and philosophy. Many world religions, especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have focused on the importance of acknowledgement of and being grateful to God as a (if not the) critical component of the good life and ancient Greek and Roman philosophers also considered gratitude to be a tremendously important virtue and foundational to the success of society and civilization. More recent research in psychology has only served to further confirm and expand our understanding of the many ways that gratitude impacts our lives positively. Leading researcher Robert Emmons, defines gratitude as a positive emotion which generates a deeper appreciation for someone or something after receiving a benefit which was “not intentionally sought after, deserved or earned, but rather because of the good intentions of another.” He argues that it occurs into two stages: 1. the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life (gratification occurs because of that goodness itself and the recognition of the effort of another to provide that goodness) and 2. the recognition of something outside ourselves as a source of this goodness which produces much deeper and long lasting positive affect.
A myriad of studies have demonstrated the incredible effects of increased gratitude including:
- Strengthened social connections and relationships with more empathy and focus on the positive qualities of another which promotes a willingness to forgive and less narcissism, envy, or greed. Since meaningful relationships are considered one of the greatest contributors to life satisfaction this is a powerful benefit which genuinely cannot be overstated.
- Improved physical health – The Positive Psychology Program cited a study from 2015 which “showed that patients with heart failure, who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep and better moods, thus dramatically reducing their symptoms of heart failure after only 8 weeks.” A lot of research has also shown people who are more grateful are more likely to sustain healthy habits in terms of eating, exercise, sleep and regular medical checkups.
- Augmented self-control, willpower and energy with increased ability to delay gratification and improved patience.
- A more positive and optimistic outlook and higher levels of productivity.
- Reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. In one study by McCraty, et al. 45 adults were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions” which led to a 23% mean reduction in the stress hormone, cortisol, during the study. Other research has also indicated less variability in resting heart rate.
- Increased mental strength and resilience, helping people to recover more quickly from setbacks, trauma and stress.
- And of course, increased happiness, overall well-being, and life satisfaction. Robert Emmons has described gratitude as both an emotional state and dispositional trait that an “individual practices as part of their daily life [and a] character strength, which if not among the top character strengths of an individual, can be developed.” Developing traits of appreciation and thankfulness can make one more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic. A recent article by Time pointed out “gratitude is something that leads to much more sustainable forms of happiness, because it’s not based in… immediate gratification [which goes away quickly and leaves cravings for more]; it’s a frame of mind.”
In light of the overwhelming benefits, is seems that finding practical ways of cultivating gratitude would certainly behoove us. But when it comes to many of the more transcendent values and ideals, it can be challenging to make such concepts tangible or attainable in the day-to-day. Now five months into my own Happiness Project, I would say definitively that the resolutions that I have set which involve an aspect of gratitude have most noticeably contributed to increased positive affect. One of the most commonly recommended ways to develop an attitude of thanksgiving is to journal. I, like most others, start to despair at the thought of keeping a tedious record of my mundane life events which could quickly become too forced or onerous. However, since the first month, I have been keeping a “One Sentence Journal” – it’s a manageable effort as opposed to a full comprehensive diary and I spend less than five minutes to document a highlight at the end of each day which helps me to remember the kind words or actions of others, new accomplishments or learnings, and other generally happy events or interactions which I am thankful for. The key for me has been the application of Emmon’s findings – keeping things specific and brief. His work has shown that being somewhat lazy with overly general or generic platitudes contributes less to gratitude than a very specific person or thing you are grateful for and the reasons why, in other words it’s more impactful for me to consider 5 ways that I am thankful for Jonathan than listing him as one of 5 people/things I am grateful for.
Other ways to make gratitude more practical might include establishing a gratitude prompt, cue, or “threshold ritual” as Gretchen Rubin has outlined as part of her Happiness Project, “Each time I stand at the top of the steps of my building, as I fumble for my keys to turn off the alarm and unlock the two front doors, I remind myself, ‘How happy I am, how grateful I am, to be home.’ Every time I cross the threshold from street into my building, I take a moment to reflect lovingly on my family and my home.” It could be that each time you get into your car or as you brush your teeth or as you take your first sip of coffee for the day that you use that as a reminder to give thanks. During my research, I was not surprised to find that there are also many apps which can aid in your efforts with a timer set to remind you to reflect and remind yourself to be thankful, some even provide specific prompts to consider/provide inspiration as well.
So Happy Thanksgiving to all, Americans or otherwise! Finding ways to cultivate gratitude is well worth the effort and more than just passing fad. Today, I am especially thankful for the technology that will allow me to FaceTime with my family from afar and the friendships I have made while living abroad. And on a less transcendental, albeit still sincere note, I am thankful for my Thanksgiving inspired roasted fall vegetables on repeat this week. Roasting the veggies brings out all their unique, rich, and savory flavors, and the melding of all them all together is oh-so-tasty. Plus they’re easy to prepare and easy to reheat and enjoy as a satisfying side for several days. They are perfect right away or as a meal prep option to save you time throughout the week – something for which I am always grateful.
- Medium Sweet Potato, Chopped into 1" pieces - 2 each
- Medium Yellow Onion, Chopped into 1" pieces - 1 each
- Small Beet, Chopped into 1" pieces - 1 each
- Brussel Sprouts, Halved - 4 cups (400 g)
- Medium Parsnips, Chopped into 1"pieces - 2 each
- Fresh Sage, Chopped and loosely packed .25 cup (5 g)
- Fresh Thyme, Chopped and loosely packed .25 cup (5 g)
- Melted Duck Fat - 4 TBSP
- Sea Salt and Black Pepper to Taste
- Preheat the oven to 400 F / 205 C and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Chop all the veggies placing them in a large bowl.
- Add the herbs and duck fat and toss well to coat.
- Pour the contents of the bowl onto the sheet pan, spreading evenly and ensuring ample space.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes or until done. The vegetables should have carmelized and be a bit crispy on the outside rather than mushy.
- Add salt and pepper as desired and enjoy right away or throughout the week.