One good thing: how keeping a gratitude diary builds resilience
Research shows young people who practise being grateful do better in almost every metric than their less grateful peers. We spoke to Dr Rangan Chatterjee, physician, author, presenter and podcaster, to learn more about the benefits of looking on the bright side, then asked some young people to write their own gratitude diaries and share them with us
Life is a series of ups and downs, fraught with unpredictability, cruelty and chaos.
It’s also a collection of tiny, magnificent joys and almost unreasonably comforting comforts. Warm toast. Hot baths. Rain. Apple crumble. Lie ins. The sound of a whole room of seven year olds dancing and laughing at once (even if, for now, their only option is to join forces on the internet, instead of gathering at their usual meeting place). In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, these things suddenly seem even more precious and valuable than ever before.
But if we forget to pay attention, we might not notice how much there is to be grateful for.
‘Humans have something called a negativity bias,’ explains Dr Rangan Chatterjee. ‘But even when it seems like we’ve not had the best of days, I guarantee that something good will have happened. If you’re not fully conscious of what that thing is, it’s because the brain is a problem solver, constantly on alert.
‘Being highly tuned into the things that could cause us harm served our ancestors well; it enabled them to adapt and survive. But in the modern world, the reality is that most of us are living relatively safe lives. This bias, then – however useful in high stakes situations – is often working against us, causing excess stress and anxiety.’
There’s a simple and effective way to get out of this trap, though it might seem counterintuitive at first.
Studies show that keeping track of what we appreciate day to day can be a helpful tool to have in our arsenal – working like an antidote to counteract this bias and help us to look at things with a fresh perspective, especially on days when we’re feeling stressed or a bit low.
Whether we’re noticing the big things – like the air in our lungs, the food in our bellies and the hours spent with people we love – or just taking a few extra minutes to enjoy life’s little luxuries, it’s all about reprogramming our brains to look on the bright side, even when it feels like there’s very little light.
‘A regular practice of gratitude isn’t some fluffy exercise,’ Dr Chatterjee insists. ‘It’s an intervention which we know can increase our life satisfaction, lower the symptoms of depression and help with aspects of our physical, mental and emotional health. The reason I so often promote it – in my clinical practice and on my podcast – is because it’s completely free of charge, and accessible to all in some form or another – pretty much without exception.’
Anyone can learn how to harness the benefits of gratitude. But, like most skills in life, mastering it early on can be a great preventative measure against unhelpful patterns that might otherwise form later on. This can help young people put themselves firmly in the driving seat of their emotions and behaviours from the starting line, instead of feeling like defenceless passengers left to navigate life’s twists and turns with their hands off the wheel.
Long term benefits
If they can master this, other benefits may follow: in one of the most significant studies conducted around gratitude and young people (so far), 221 young people aged 11 and 12 were split into groups.
For three weeks, one group set aside some time each day to write a list of the things they were grateful for, while the other group reflected on their everyday ‘hassles’.
At the end of the study, the group who focused on the positives reported higher levels of optimism and life satisfaction, as well as lower rates of negative thoughts and emotions. They were also more ‘socially inclined’, and more able to offer more emotional support to others. In other words, they were able to extend their gratitude, and watch the effects multiply. The same thing happened when 14 to 19 year olds gave it a go.
And, perhaps most astonishingly of all, the results were long-term. Three months after the experiment was over, spirits were still higher.
Just imagine, then, how much of an impact we could have on young people’s wellbeing if we started incorporating gratitude into what we do at Scouts, simply by running a micro-activity each week.
Interested in trying it out for yourself – at home with family, or with your Scouts online? Here are Dr Chatterjee’s top tips for getting started on having a regular gratitude practice, inspired by his own life experiences and by his research in writing his latest book, Feel Better in 5
Be specific about what you feel gratitude for
When we sit down to reflect at the end of our day, being specific about what we’re grateful for helps us to commit these positive experiences to memory.
Let’s say you’re a busy parent, but today you had time to wake up early and have a coffee in peace. As you put pen to paper, try to replay the moment in your head, honing in on the details. How did the coffee taste? How did the mug feel in your hand? Perhaps you had time to listen to a favourite song or chat to someone you love while you sipped, or perhaps you were looking out the window. What did the world look like before most people had woken up? How did it make you feel?
The stories we tell ourselves in our mind shape our narrative of the world, so the more positive details you can recall, the better – even if what you write is short and sweet.
You can encourage young people to draw something that captures the moment, if they can’t find the words or would prefer to express themselves visually.
Focus on people, not things
There are bound to be days where we’re grateful for a new pair of shoes or fixated on an upcoming treat, and that’s fine. But, where possible, try to focus on the people around you – how they add to your life and what you value about them – and you’ll reap the benefits. Studies show this type of gratitude generates the most long-lasting positive feelings.
Make it easy for yourself
Humans are creatures of habit, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we often need to ‘parent’ ourselves if we want to make things happen. Make it as easy as possible for yourself to do the action, until it becomes a habit. At home, this might mean leaving your gratitude diary on your bedside table, with the empty page left temptingly open, and placed beside a pen, so you don’t have to rummage through the kitchen drawer for a spare one.
With family, it might mean playing a gratitude game over dinner (like asking each other to name one good thing that happened that day), when you’re already sat down all together.
At Scouts, it might mean incorporating gratitude into a game you already play, or a routine you already know like the back of your hand (like a digital ‘opening’ or ‘closing’).
It’s all about removing what Dr Chatterjee calls the ‘barriers to participation’, and it’s worth approaching much like you’d instruct a young person who needs help packing for their first camp, or completing their first badge. Break things down into steps, and then simplify those steps as much as possible.
Download a gratitude diary template at: scouts.org.uk/gratitudediary. For more inspiration, you can listen to Dr Chatterjee’s podcast – Feel Better. Live More. – or order his latest book Feel Better in 5 at drchatterjee.com