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The benefits of gratitude

June 20, 2020

“The root of joy is gratefulness, for it is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful.” — Br. David Stendl-Rast

RWS 2.0 Six of PentaclesThis article is “dedicated” to the Six of Pentacles, which I associate with gratitude (the flip-side of generosity).  Of course, you may associate a different card with gratitude—perhaps the Ace of Pentacles—in which case you can see this article as being applicable to that card instead.

Hundreds of studies have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of practicing gratitude, even (or especially) in the midst of adversity like our current pandemic crisis. Consequently, a detailed look at this topic is of great value at this time.

Gratitude has two key components. First, it’s an affirmation that there are good things in the world. The second part of gratitude is our recognition that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people and a Higher Power give us gifts both great and small that bring goodness in our lives. This social dimension is especially important because it shows us how we’ve been supported by other people, and that realization strengthens our relationships.

Gratitude brings many other benefits into our lives. It boosts positive emotions like feelings of joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, optimism, compassion, and generosity, and it mutes negative emotions that erode our happiness—emotions like envy, resentment, despair, and regret. As a result, it can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of anxiety and depression.

In the face of serious trauma and adversity, people with a grateful disposition recover more quickly. Thus, for example it has been found to help people recover from traumatic events, including veterans with PTSD.

Grateful people also sleep better.  They fall asleep faster, get more hours of sleep each night, and feel more refreshed upon awakening. In addition, studies suggest gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains.

Gratitude is a skill we can develop with practice. But what if you don’t feel grateful yet? You can take a “fake it ’till you make it” approach. Acting like you’re grateful is better than nothing. It opens the channel if you just start exploring what you might be grateful for. And then before you know it, you actually do find a place of gratitude in your life. In the meantime, here are some effective ways to cultivate a grateful life:

  • Keep a gratitude journal, recording three to five things for which you’re grateful every day. This works well first thing in the morning or just before you go to bed at night.
  • Similarly, you might think of five simple things you’re grateful for every morning before you even get out of bed. For example:
    My lungs are breathing in and out.
    The air temperature is comfortable.
    I had an interesting dream.
    I get to put my feet on the floor and walk out into the world.
    There are people in my life who I love and who love me.
    I’m still here.
    This will remind you every morning that this day is a gift.
  • Look in the mirror whenever you brush your teeth and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.
  • Think of all the things on your TO DO list each day such as “I have to go grocery shopping” or “I have to clean the house.” Now, restate that list by changing the words “I have to” to “I get to.” This puts a different, more exciting frame around the things we do in our lives, which shifts obligations to opportunities.
  • Make it a practice to tell a spouse or friend something you appreciate about them every day.  This is especially important considering that a lack of appreciation is cited as a leading cause of relationship breakups.
  • Make it a practice to say a silent “Thank you” whenever something nice happens. Say it to yourself, to other people, and to the Divine. Say it about everything you can, say it often, and always mean it.
  • A similar, but deeper practice is to send Thank You notes. This gratitude practice is demonstrated by a beautiful story I once read about a man named John Kralik who started writing a thank you note every day, which changed his life.  At a time when his life was in the dumps, Kralik had an epiphany:  Instead of focusing on what he didn’t have, he found a way to be grateful for what he did have, and that way was to write “Thank You” notes.  (If you’re interested to learn how this process changed Kralik’s life, read his book, 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.)

Some people ask, “Does gratitude mean that we should stick our heads in the sand about our problems?” No, of course not. We should notice everything. However, we should try to keep our attention focused on what is good in our lives. This world may give us plenty of problems, but when we cultivate an attitude of gratitude, things don’t just look better, they actually get better. So treasure deeply what you have now, and your life will blossom with everything that really matters to you.

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The following are sources I used in writing this article in case you want to explore this topic in more depth:

What is Gratitude?

Why Gratitude is Good

The Medicine of Gratitude

Ten True Things About Gratefulness

The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier

The Ace of Pentacles suggests a way to live a happier life

Pithy Tarot meanings — Six of Pentacles

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