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Practicing Gratitude Enhances Well-Being

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LOUISVILLE Studies show that the regular practice of gratitude can not only increase our well-being and happiness, but also improve our physical health and our relationships.

I was in the audience as David Novak, then-president and CEO of Yum! Brands, explained to Business First Publisher Tom Monahan how a boy who’d lived in 32 trailer parks in 23 states by the time he reached seventh grade became the head of the world’s largest restaurant company at age 47.

As they discussed Novaks unique leadership style, he shared two seemingly unrelated perceptions:

Novak observed, “It’s the soft stuff that drives the hard results.”

He also offered two observations about why people leave jobs:

1) They don’t get along with their bosses; or
2) They don’t feel appreciated.

And it’s not just work relationships that suffer when people feel taken for granted.

The primary driver of many unhappy marriages or those that end in divorce is not fighting or infidelity, according to marriage researcher and relationship expert John Gottman. It’s simply not feeling appreciated.

On the other hand, positive emotions, including those associated with appreciation, thankfulness or gratitude, have been observed to have an “un-doing” effect that causes negative emotions to dissipate more rapidly (including the cardiovascular aftereffects of negative emotions) and appear to help people effectively handle stressful situations.

How Gratitude Can Improve Your Health, Happiness, and Relationships

My favorite gratitude study involved three groups, each with a very different assignment. One group was instructed to focus each week on things they perceived as irritating, annoying, or frustrating. The second group focused each week on things for which they were grateful, thankful, or appreciative. The control group focused on ordinary life events during the week.

The research conclusions found that the people who focused on gratitude were unmistakably happier – in just about all aspects of their lives. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms, such as headaches or colds, and they spent almost an hour and a half more per week exercising than those who focused on negatives.

Simply put, those who were grateful had a higher quality of life.

In a follow-up study, those who found something to appreciate every day were observed to be less materialistic, less depressive, envious, and anxious, and much more likely to help others, a fact not lost on those around them. When others were asked their impressions of the daily-gratitude group, they generally judged them as empathic and helpful to others. This effect was not observed in either of the other two groups.

As research author Robert Emmons put it, “This is not just something that makes people happy, like a positive-thinking/optimism kind of thing. A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate.”

The Bottom Line

The study found that the participants who were consciously grateful felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic, more enthusiastic, more determined, more interested, more joyful, and more likely to have helped someone else.

Other studies suggest that these psycho-emotional benefits are accompanied by health benefits as well: more energy, more restful sleep, clearer thinking, better resilience during tough times, fewer illnesses, and fewer stress-related conditions.

Blocks to Gratitude and How to Overcome Them

In spite of all the evidence, you may be surprised to uncover some subtle doubts about cultivating a daily gratitude practice. Author Kathy Freston offers insightful solutions to faulty thinking about gratitude:

MYTH #1: If I am grateful for my present situation, it means I’m satisfied with what I have and cannot hope for something more.

REALITY: When we are grateful for what we have now, we are actually programming ourselves for more — it becomes natural to gravitate toward more satisfying situations.

MYTH #2: If I am grateful, I’ll be taken advantage of — I’ll be a sucker in a tough world.

REALITY: It takes confidence and strength to express gratitude. Being appropriately appreciative tends to make people want to do more for us, not less.

MYTH #3: If I get too grateful, I won’t be motivated or ambitious to move forward.

REALITY: Gratitude doesn’t make us lazy — it inspires and energizes us to get more of that feeling of well-being.

A Daily Practice to Cultivate Gratitude

To begin cultivating gratitude, be open and receptive (and if necessary, look diligently) for something to be thankful for on a daily basis in each of the following areas of your life. Good times to do this are as you are waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night.

Body/Physical health
Random acts of kindness
Appreciation of beauty

It is particularly helpful to do this practice when things are going well – when you’ve had a good day or something good happened. In other words, “dig the well before the house is on fire.” It’s like making deposits into a bank account — you can draw on those reserves in times of need.