Gratitude practice is nothing but a simple expression of appreciation for what one has received or what one has experienced. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin ‘gratus’ for thankfulness — also meaning grace or pleasing in other contexts. In recent times, gratitude practice has come to be recognised as one of the pillars of mental health, along with others like mindfulness and journaling.
Here the focus is on cultivating gratitude and its expression as a habit, rather than coasting on spontaneous feelings or emotions. Psychologists have defined it as the difference between feeling grateful and being grateful.
But I feel grateful, why do I need to express it, you ask?
Various studies have shown that practising gratitude has physical, mental and social benefits. It leads to reduction in stress levels, better sleep, enhanced mental health, stronger relationships, and an overall sense of positivity. It creates a deeper awareness and appreciation of what’s going right and wrong in our lives, and it makes us look beyond ourselves. It reduces aggression and increases empathy.
If all that is not enough, gratitude practice also causes a surge in self-esteem, making us love ourselves just a bit more. Science says that all this is because gratitude rewires our brains, kickstarting the production of happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin.
And what is more, it is shown to have lasting effects on the mind. Which means that the benefits linger on long after we have actually expressed gratitude. A study conducted among nearly 300 college students undergoing counselling showed that the sample group assigned with the added task of writing a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks, reported significantly better mental health four weeks and twelve weeks after the project.
Martin Seligman, a leading practitioner of Positive Psychology, writes in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, “Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them.”
Gratitude practice takes on more significance than ever right now, with everything we considered familiar and safe turned on its head. The Covid-19 pandemic has created or exacerbated mental health issues like anxiety, depression and fear everywhere. It is so easy to get sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts, resulting from overexposure to facts and counter-facts.
It is exactly in such a situation that gratitude can be a balm to the worried mind; forcing ourselves to think about and acknowledge the things we are grateful for shifts the attention away from incessant negativity. This does not mean being in denial of pain or problems, or being a perennial positive thinker — it just means always being aware of the sunshine streaming in through the cracks. To have gratitude is not to wish away disasters big or small, but to remind ourselves that however bad things seem, there is still good in the world, and in our lives.
To think about it, people across the world have been practising gratitude in many ways these last few months — from clapping for healthcare workers to voicing an increased appreciation for the outdoors. These gestures aside, the secret to consistent feelings of serenity and security, is to mindfully make gratitude a habit.
A hug from a significant other, a coffee shared with a close friend over extended conversations, a meal at a favourite restaurant, a walk on a popular park trail, a blockbuster movie watched in a crowded cinema — all these are happy experiences we used to take for granted and miss now. Will we remember to be grateful for them, when life eventually returns to normal?
How to practise gratitude? Try these 5 tips
- As soon as you wake up every morning, offer mental thanks to somebody or something spontaneously.
- Always makes sure to say thank you, and mean it. Or once a week, write thank you notes to someone who has made your life better.
- Before going to sleep, write down three things that you feel grateful for that day. It could be a quick note written in a gratitude journal or jotted down in a phone app that sends out a timely reminder.
- Call a friend or a family member to tell them what they mean to you; share appreciation and return compliments.
- And finally, pay it forward. Every act of compassion you receive deserves to be acknowledged by passing it on to others who need it.