Cultivating Gratitude

Throughout human evolution, our ancestors’ survival depended heavily on their ability to detect and respond to potential threats or danger in their environment, such as predators or hostile tribes, which led to a heightened sensitivity to negative stimuli. This evolutionary adaptation allowed individuals to prioritize avoiding harm, thus increasing their chances of survival and reproduction in challenging and often dangerous environments. Having this evolutionarily heightened focus on the “negative” comes at a cost of potentially overlooking the abundance of positive and beneficial aspects that surround us, which may be equally important for overall well-being and adaptation.

One of the ways we can move from negative to positive thinking in our daily lives is to focus on what we are grateful for. Research shows that gratitude, like a lot of what we traditionally think of as “just in our heads,” actually has a measurable impact on our physical and mental well-being. In one 2003 study, researchers at the University of California in Davis had subjects write a few sentences each week. One group focused on things they were grateful for, a second group focused on things that irritated them, and a final group focused their writings on experiences that had neither a positive or negative impact. After ten weeks, the group that focused on gratitude reported increased optimism and self-confidence. Members of the group also reported that they exercised more and made fewer trips to the doctor.

I tried a variation of this experiment myself a few years ago. I must admit that I initially found this exercise both difficult and frustrating. I realized that as an academic and scientist, I had actively trained my brain to focus on the negative. I spend my days searching for problems that need to be solved, either in studies, grants, or papers or some bad outcome that needs to be addressed and researched. It took effort on my part to tune into another side of things, which was in fact happening all around me. And the struggle paid off in ways I had not anticipated. As I continued, day after day, to recognize and record positive exchanges—strangers helping each other on the street, my colleagues laughing in the hallways, my kids being nice to each other—I found I was able to tune in to the good all around me, and my own behavior and outlook started to change.

One of the lead researchers in the ten-week gratitude study, Robert Emmons of the University of California in Davis, has gone on to compile a list of health data points from his own study and from other research related to gratitude. Research has found that actively practicing gratitude lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol and reduces inflammation, two biomarkers linked to a variety of diseases, including cancer. Studies also show that gratitude reduces depression and improves sleep quality.

Here are a few steps you to start cultivating more gratitude in your life:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes in a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and bring your focus to the present moment.
  • Begin by reflecting on three things you’re grateful for in your life. These can be big or small, recent or from the past. It could be about someone you’re grateful for who has made a positive impact on your life.
  • Write down each item of gratitude in a journal or on a piece of paper. Be specific and descriptive about why you’re grateful for each.
  • After writing down each item, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize it in your mind. Try to evoke the feelings of gratitude associated with each.
  • Take a few more deep breaths and spend a moment reflecting on how practicing gratitude makes you feel. Notice any shifts in your mood or perspective.

Cultivating gratitude is a powerful practice that can enhance your sense of happiness and overall well-being. By regularly reflecting on the positive aspects of your life and expressing gratitude towards others, you can foster a mindset of abundance and appreciation. Commit to practicing gratitude regularly. You can incorporate this exercise into your daily or weekly routine by setting aside time to reflect on what you’re thankful for.

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