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Blog | 16 May 2020

How to be grateful

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Especially when things are difficult, it’s easy to miss the things we could be grateful for.

Life is a series of ups and downs, fraught with unpredictability, cruelty and chaos. Right now, the reality of this is hitting many of us harder than ever. Coronavirus means that people across the UK are facing disrupted routines, employment difficulties, and even bereavement.

Even now, however, life is 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 group of seven year olds seeing each other’s faces (and virtual backgrounds) on a video call.

Especially when things are difficult, it’s easy to miss the things we could be grateful for.

‘Humans have something called a negativity bias,’ explains Dr Rangan Chatterjee, physician, author, presenter and podcaster. ‘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,’ says Dr Chatterjee. It’s true that, at the moment, many of us are experiencing a higher level of threat and danger than we’d usually expect.

Unlike our ancestors, though, being highly tuned in to the problem isn’t going to help us overcome it. As long as we’re following government advice, focusing intently on coronavirus isn’t the solution. Our bias towards hyper-focusing on the negative in situations ‘is often working against us,’ Dr Chatterjee explains, ‘causing excess stress and anxiety.’

Simple things

So, what can we do about our inbuilt negativity bias?

Well, studies show that keeping track of what we appreciate day to day can be a helpful tool to have in our arsenal. It works a bit like an antidote to counteract the bias and help us look at things with a fresh perspective, especially on days when we’re feeling stressed or low.

Whether we’re noticing the big things – like the air in our lungs, the food in our bellies and the phone calls 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. It’s never too late to start looking for the moments of brightness or things that make you smile. Like most skills in life, however, mastering gratitude early on can be a great preventative measure against unhelpful patterns that might otherwise form later in people’s lives.

Strengthening their gratitude connections can help young people to 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 young people can master gratitude, 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.

Gratitude isn’t just for young people. A surprising amount of research suggests that gratitude does good things for adults too, suggesting it’s related to mood, self-esteem, wellbeing, life satisfaction, and even quality of sleep!

In one study, researchers split adults into groups and asked one to write down things they were thankful for each week, while others wrote down ‘hassles’. Those in

the gratitude group rated their lives more positively as a whole, had higher expectations about the upcoming week, and experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness.

In a second study, people wrote down their gratitude or hassles every day. The gratitude group reported that they had a better mood, choosing words like ‘enthusiastic’, ‘interested’, ‘joyful’ and ‘strong’ – and they were also more likely have helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to someone else.

And the really good news? A study found that writing down things they were thankful for made people more grateful. Keeping a gratitude diary seems to work – and research suggests it’s even more powerful to jot things down daily (compared to weekly).

For most people, it’s not too much of a chore, either. People who start writing gratitude lists for experiments often find it’s so enjoyable (and self-reinforcing) that they continue even after the study has finished.

So, what are you waiting for? We’re not saying that gratitude will fix everything (especially right now), but there are good reasons for giving it a go.

Top tips from the expert

Interested in trying it out for yourself? Here are Dr Chatterjee’s top tips for getting started on having a regular gratitude practice, whether you want to write, draw, act, or just reflect.

  1. 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 could also draw something that captures the moment, if you can’t find the words or would prefer to express yourself in a different way.

  1. Focus on people, not things

There are bound to be days where we’re grateful for a new pair of shoes or fixated on a special virtual event, and that’s fine. But, where possible, try to focus on the people in your life – how they make you feel 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.

  1. 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.

It’s all about removing what Dr Chatterjee calls the ‘barriers to participation’, and it’s worth approaching gratitude much like you’d help a young person who needs help doing their homework, or trying something new.

It’s all about breaking things down into steps, and then simplifying those steps as much as possible.

You can download a gratitude diary template to get you started on the Scouts website. For more inspiration, you can find Dr Chatterjee’s podcast – Feel Better. Live More. – here.

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