“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Humans are good at feeling bad. It’s called the “negativity bias” and we are hardwired for it. We remember negative experiences better than positive ones. We recall insults better than praise. We react more strongly to negative stimuli than we do to positive stimuli.
This bias affects us all to varying degrees. For some, it leads to mild discouragement. For others, it’s a symptom of a serious mental illness like depression or anxiety.
Regardless of how this feature of human consciousness wears you down, gratitude can help build you back up.
Psychological research shows that people who deliberately and consistently focus on what they are thankful for tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Practicing gratitude can boost other positive emotions, too, like optimism, pleasure, hope, and enthusiasm.
Gratitude can also improve our physical health. Researchers have shown that gratitude reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, improves sleep quality, and increases pain tolerance.
Gratitude heals social wounds as well. When we express gratitude to others, we are more likely to forgive, less likely to feel prejudice, and more willing to purge poisonous attitudes like envy, jealousy, and greed.
To appreciate the healing power of gratitude, however, it’s important to understand what gratitude is not. Gratitude is not starry-eyed, naive optimism. It is not pretending your problems don’t exist. You can be a realist and still practice gratitude. In fact, gratitude works best as a healing force when it is felt in an authentic, honest way.
So how does one practice gratitude? Here are some practical tips:
Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal
Simply write down 3 things every day that you are thankful for. These could be things that happened that day (e.g., I’m thankful that my boss complimented my work today) or more general things about your life (e.g., I’m thankful that I have indoor plumbing).
Express Gratitude to Someone You Care About
Reaching out via email, text message, phone call, or face-to-face, is a small gesture that not only strengthens your bond with that person, but also improves your mood.
Imagine What Life Could be Like Without the Things You Take for Granted
This is especially effective when you’re stuck in a negativity bias feedback loop and don’t think you have anything to be thankful for. Most humans are better off today than they would have been a few hundred years ago. Start mentally subtracting your modern conveniences from your life and you’ll quickly realize how good you have it.
Focus On and Savor Something You Enjoy
Spend time really looking at the beauty around you. Take a bite of some good food and pay attention to how much you enjoy it before swallowing. Allow your favorite song to completely capture your attention. All these things you enjoy are gifts. Spend time with them and let your appreciation for them fill up every corner of your awareness.
Whether you’re depressed, anxious, afraid, grieving, annoyed, angry, or bored, gratitude can help you heal.