What are you grateful for?

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

Gratitude is one of the most important emotional states for humans to enter into. This is a fact which has long been recognized by various spiritual traditions and now the medical profession is starting to better understand the very real and tangible benefits offered by gratitude. For those who are unaware, gratitude is the emotional and mental state of being aware and appreciative of the positive things that are present in one’s life. This can be hard to achieve as modern society is very much set up in a way which is designed to make people focus on what life is lacking rather than what it contains. Taking the time to learn to break through this externally enforced mentality offers a range of benefits.

The fact that gratitude has been such a core tenant of various faiths and spiritual practices since the dawn of time is a sign that it has a key role to play in human life. Much psychological distress can arise from focusing on what is lacking in life rather than what is present. For example, it is very common in the modern, developed world for people to have a large number of material possessions. It is likely that they will be more keenly focused on lusting after the latest and newest items in areas such as fashion and technology rather than making use of and being grateful for the things they already have. This psychological phenomenon is the basis on which most marketing campaigns are conducted.

The religious and spiritual emphasis on gratitude is in direct contrast with the aforementioned modern focus on what is lacking rather than what is present. Monotheistic faiths such as Islam and Christianity, which are followed by a large percentage of the world’s population, place a key emphasis on being grateful for what God has provided. This is made clear by the many references to gratitude as a desirable state of being which are placed throughout various religious scriptures. Gratitude is beneficial for all people however, not just followers of a specific religious faith, a fact which has been proven by the modern positive psychology movement.

There are empirical scientific studies which have linked gratitude to a range of physical health benefits beyond any reasonable doubt. It has been proven that people who take the time to be grateful sleep better, are less prone to stress and depression and are more likely to cope well with the challenges and hardships that life has for them. Many of the health problems that people experience in the western world are not related to basic physical problems such as malnutrition or disease. Rather they are related to the psyche and include issues such as depression, insomnia and stress. It is interesting to note that gratitude is an effective medicine for all of these problems and it may reduce the need for solutions such as anti-depressant drugs and other modern cures.

Now that the benefits of gratitude have been clearly established, it is vital to develop a number of ways that this positive state can be cultivated. Every person is a unique individual with their own set of beliefs and circumstances so what works for one person may not work for another. The point of methods that lead to gratitude is not the choice of method in and of itself. Rather it is the state that the method aims to cultivate and the benefits that stem from it. Therefore if one particular method does not work it is worth trying others as the benefits are worth it in the long run.

Exercises that can help a person feel grateful are not complicated and do not require any particularly expert or niche knowledge or equipment. For example, many exercises which can lead to the experience of gratitude can be carried out with a simple notepad and pen. One practice of this type which may help a person experience the emotion of gratitude and the benefits that arise from it is to sit somewhere quietly and make a list of everything and everyone they are thankful for in their life. This can and should involve absolutely everything from the seemingly trivial to the obviously significant. For example, a person could write down their gratitude for everything from a glass of clean, cool water to drink all the way up to the large comfortable house in which they live.

A key part of cultivating a mentality of gratitude is to realize that being grateful is not contingent upon a particular set of external or material circumstances. For example, it is a common problem that people feel they can only be grateful when they have achieved a certain job or level of income. This is a fallacy however and is likely to lead to a range of negative consequences. Both spirituality and psychology emphasize the need to seek things to be grateful for in any set of circumstances. For example, even a prisoner may find it in themselves to be grateful that they have shelter, however basic it may be.

The importance of gratitude to a person’s happiness and wellbeing cannot be over-emphasized. Many psychologists believe gratitude to be uniquely important and that many other beneficial personality traits arise from the initial cultivation of gratitude. An example of this is altruism. Altruism, or the practice of doing something for others where the primary motivation is not to benefit one’s self, is shown to be far more common amongst grateful people than those who do not have gratitude as one of the main states of being in their life. Previously ungrateful people who go on to cultivate an outlook based on or featuring gratitude are demonstrably more altruistic than ungrateful people.

It is clear that gratitude is a key part of human wellbeing for both religious and non-religious people. It is beneficial not only to the individual who feels grateful, as they will experience increased levels of physical and psychological wellbeing, but for society as a wider entity, due to the benefits that altruistic behavior offers. Cultivating a grateful mentality may well be the single most important undertaking for people, no matter their background or circumstances.