The One Emotion that Can Change Your Life

As Thanksgiving approaches, our lives feel more hectic than ever as we make social plans and travel arrangements with family and friends. We need to wind up projects, respond to messages, and schedule appointments before everything shuts down for the long weekend.

I’m here to tell you to B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Your tasks aren’t going anywhere. Emails will continue to come in as fast as you can get your responses out, and your To-Do List will remain long after the turkey coma fades. But the biggest gift you can give yourself, and others, is the shift to a grateful mindset that puts all of it in perspective.

And here’s proof: The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (yes, that’s right) issued a white paper late last year called “The Science of Gratitude.”

The report, which was prepared for the John Templeton Foundation, spells out the way in which scientists over the past two decades have begun to unravel the biological roots of gratitude and its benefits. It also discusses the ways that people can cultivate feelings of gratitude in their day-to-day lives, at work and at home.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude has been described as the “social glue” that strengthens relationships and serves as the backbone of human society, writes report author Summer Allen, PhD. The Roman statesman Cicero called it “the mother of all the other remaining virtues,” leading to patience, humility, and wisdom. And sociologist Georg Simmel refers to it as “the moral memory of mankind.”

What has become clear is that gratitude is not simply a cultural phenomenon. For instance, studies have found that chimpanzees are more likely to share food with a chimpanzee that helped them in the past—by grooming them, for instance. Other work has identified brain areas—and even specific genes—that are likely involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude.  

What influences gratitude?

The extent to which we feel gratitude may be influenced by how we perceive the motivations of someone who does something for us and whether it was done freely or out of obligation.

Several studies have shown that women and girls report feeling more grateful than men and boys, and that certain traits (envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism) can be barriers to gratitude. Other factors such as religion, parenting styles, and culture, can also influence a person’s tendency to experience gratitude.

What are the benefits of gratitude?

Gratitude boosts physical and psychological health, along with increased happiness and life satisfaction, studies have found. Grateful people also may be healthier than those who are not. Scientifically designed practices to increase gratitude can improve your health and encourage you to adopt healthier habits. In fact, the more grateful you are, the less likely you are to suffer from burnout.

Gratitude also helps us form and maintain relationships. Researchers call this it’s “find, remind, and bind” function, which attunes people to the thoughtfulness of others. It also reminds them of the goodness of their existing relationships and binds them to partners and friends by making them feel appreciated.  

“I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion,“ writes Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, “because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”

In the workplace, gratitude may help employees perform their jobs more effectively, feel more satisfied at work, and act more helpfully and respectfully toward their coworkers.

What are some good ways to practice gratitude?

Every morning when I wake up, I feel grateful to be alive. We have all unfortunately experienced loss in our lives and may have people close to us battling serious illness—all constant reminders that we are fortunate to be here.  

I started practicing daily gratitude after my daughter was born nearly six years ago. It’s forever changed my approach to how I navigate challenging times, how I choose to spend my time, and with whom I spend it. I focus on being present and grateful by practicing breathing techniques. I also take a moment for gratitude before meditating each morning. 

Here are some other ways we can all incorporate a gratitude practice into our daily lives:

Count your blessings. Try keeping a gratitude journal by writing down three things that went well each day. Take a moment to think about the reasons why.

Spend money on experiences versus things. Sharing music, theater, travel (especially with others) all goes a long way toward generating happiness and ultimately a grateful mindset, compared to spending money on a new watch or pair of shoes. (Books may be the exception to that!) 

Express it. Let people know that you appreciate them by telling them directly. Taking them out for lunch or coffee or leaving a handwritten note on their desk goes far.

Volunteer. Take time to help out at a local organization, whether it’s a homeless shelter or a library. Most opportunities require only an hour or two, and you might find it’s something that you want to do on a regular basis.

Be present. Put your devices away and give other people your full attention whenever possible.

Take action. Introduce appreciation programs at work that recognize employees for personal celebrations and professional achievements/milestones, and create opportunities for your staff to have contact with the people who benefit from the work they do.  

Don’t expect gratitude in return. Don’t use gratitude as a currency or expect it to shift relationship boundaries. Be generous yet aware of other people’s circumstances. Be grateful, not boastful, that you can help make a positive in their lives and the world.