Dr. Dave Verhaagen has begun a practical six-part series to help young adults live happier, healthier lives. Based on the acronym OMEGAS, he has already explored the benefits of intentional optimism, mindfulness, and emotional awareness.
Here he explores the surprisingly powerful impact gratitude can have. If you’d like to read the other articles in the OMEGAS series, click on one of the letters below.
A Rare Moment of Gratitude
A couple of weeks ago, an 18-year-old client of mine said, “I’m really grateful for my mother.” I took notice because I’m not used to people talking like this.
I’m more accustomed to hearing people talk about how their parents frustrate them or how their partners have disappointed them or how their bosses drive them crazy.
Rarely in my therapy appointments or in my regular life do I hear someone spontaneously say they are grateful to another person. But for this guy, who had weathered a particularly difficult time of life, he reflected on how his mother had been there for him, even when he was impossible to be with.
I remembered this rare moment and reflected on how it was no coincidence that his willingness to be grateful seemed closely associated with his ability to emerge from a rough patch.
“Gratitude can have a powerful impact on your quality of life.”
The same mindset that allowed him to express gratitude also led him to become more positive and optimistic in his thinking. I began to reflect.
Have you ever been so grateful to someone you wrote them a letter, thanking them, detailing all the ways you appreciated them? I’m not just talking about a thank you note for a graduation gift or a letter your parents pushed you to write to your aunt when you were a kid.
No, I’m talking about being so moved by gratitude toward the other person that you wrote them a heartfelt note. Now take that a step further and imagine you wrote the letter by hand and then drove to their house and asked them to read it out loud in front of you.
It sounds a little weird, right? But that’s exactly what one research study asked people to do. And the result?
They found both the writer and the recipient had positive outcomes. They both felt happier, more connected, and more positive about themselves and their relationships. One little letter had a big impact on their quality of life.
Small doses of gratitude seem to have big effects on our happiness and well-being. These little things mean a lot.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Research has found that intentionally expressing gratitude can boost your level of happiness by up to 25% for several weeks. In one study, researchers found 94% of severely depressed people showed improvements in their level of depression after a gratitude exercise.
Of all the human practices studied in the research, gratitude emerges as one of the most consistently beneficial attitudes and behaviors.
A white paper on gratitude research prepared by the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley found deep and wide-ranging benefits to gratitude, including better physical and mental health, greater life satisfaction, better self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and lower rates of burnout.
One study found those who experienced more gratitude also rated themselves as being more proud, hopeful, forgiving, excited, and inspired.
The benefits seem to cross cultural lines. For example, research in Korea found those who experienced more gratitude had greater feelings of life satisfaction, as well as less emotional difficulties.
However, there are differences in different cultures, mostly due to more individualistic cultures gaining less positive benefit from gratitude.
One of the coolest parts of gratitude is that it takes relatively little time to do it consistently. As a therapist, I often “prescribe” a gratitude journal where I ask my clients to write down 3 to 5 things they are grateful for every day.
Most say they do this as they get ready for bed because it allows them to reflect on the day they’ve just had. I like for people to think of 5 things if possible because it requires them to put a little mental muscle into it and think hard, reviewing the day through a positive filter.
I also ask them to think of 3 to 5 unique things, not just repeating what they have already written in previous journal entries (I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for my friends. I’m grateful for my dog. I’m grateful I have a roof over my head…).
Ideally, they write about things that have occurred or have come to mind over the course of the day.
I also like the practice of regular gratitude letters. As I mentioned earlier, the research studies often ask people to write the letters by hand, then give them to the recipient in person, asking them to read the letter out loud.
People often balk at that, feeling like it is too awkward. What’s interesting, though, is that the research found people tend to have an incorrect perception of this.
In one study, even though participants reported a significant positive boost in their mood after writing a letter of gratitude, they underestimated how warm and positive the recipient of a gratitude letter of gratitude would feel. In fact, they greatly overestimated how awkward the receiver would feel.
Sometimes it’s not worries about how awkward it might be that is the barrier, but time or distance constraints. What if you really wanted to thank a teacher who lives three states away? I doubt you’ll book a flight and hand-deliver the letter.
The same goes for friends and family members who might live in far-flung areas or have travel schedules that make this nearly impossible.
In those cases, it’s perfectly fine to craft a text or email. You may even want to go old-school and write out a letter by hand, figure out where in the world you could possibly buy a stamp, then actually mail it. Crazy, I know.
With some of the newer technologies and social media platforms, you could also send a note of gratitude or even a gratitude video to that awesome person.
The 10-Day Gratitude Challenge
So now let’s make this personal. If you buy the idea that intentional gratitude can benefit you, as well as the other person, I challenge you to take the 10-Day Gratitude Challenge.
It’s not hard to do, but it might be a powerful happiness booster for you and a blessing to some other important people in your life.
Before you take the challenge, do one thing to set a baseline: Rate your level of happiness from 0 (none) to 100 (the most). In the research, we sometimes call this “subjective wellbeing,” but you can just call it your level of happiness.
Put that number down somewhere you will remember. Go ahead and do that now… Good! Now, you’re ready to take the 10-Day Gratitude Challenge!
1. Every Day Write Down 3 Things You Are Grateful For
These could be people, events, circumstances, or anything else. Be highly specific. Ideally, most of them should be things that have happened or came to mind that day, but not limited to that.
You can write them down in a notebook or on your phone. There are even gratitude journal apps you can get for your phone. Some are even password protected.
2. Send a Gratitude Message to 3 Significant People
During this 10-day period, write or record a gratitude message to 3 significant people. It could be a friend, a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, or anyone who you are grateful for.
Be specific about why you are grateful. You can write the 3 people all on one day or spread out the 3 messages over the course of the 10 days.
3. Identify 3 Positive Qualities You Possess
Right now, either write down or say out loud 3 qualities or abilities you personally possess for which you are grateful.
Recap: Remember 3×3
So I’ve made this easy. Just remember 3 x 3: 3 gratitude journal entries every day. 3 gratitude messages total. 3 personal qualities or abilities right now.
At the end of the 10 days, once again rate yourself from 0 to 100 to see if your happiness level has changed in any direction. If you do this, I’d love to hear from you. Please share your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Gratitude can have a powerful impact on your quality of life. If you take the 10-day challenge and see the benefit of it, the next step is to make it a lifestyle with regular reflections on gratitude, occasional gratitude letters, and a mindset that is grateful and thankful.
I’ll be back soon with the next part of our OMEGAS series where I’ll share the benefits of Acceptance. I hope you’ll come back for that.
Also, if you haven’t already done so, please check out the earlier articles where I discuss optimism, mindfulness, and emotional awareness. And if you want regular updates on our content, subscribe to our email newsletter.
Thanks for checking this out. I’m grateful for you!
Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing gratitude: expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1423–1435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618772506
Watkins, P. L., Emmons, R. A., Greaves, M. R., & Bell, J. (2018). Joy is a distinct positive emotion: assessment of joy and relationship to gratitude and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(5), 522-539.