Thursday, June 12, 2014

Daily Expressions of Gratitude: They only take 5 minutes and can be the key to your happiness

Merriam-Webster defines gratitude in two ways. The first: "the state of being grateful." Well, that isn't very helpful. The second: " thankfulness." The only image I can conjure up for "thankfulness" is an amorphous picture of my family sitting around a delectable spread of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce, each person taking a turn to voice one thing they were thankful for at that moment. 

In his 2013 TED talk, which has generated nearly 3.5 million views, Benectine monk and faith scholar, David Steindl-Rast, creates a more vivid, accessible picture of gratitude:
"We all know from experience how it goes. We experience something that's valuable to us. Something is given to us that's valuable to us. And it's really given. These two things have to come together. It has to be something valuable, and it's a real gift. You haven't bought it. You haven't earned it. You haven't traded it in. You haven't worked for it. It's just given to you. And when these two things come together, something that's really valuable to me and I realize it's freely given, then gratefulness spontaneously rises in my heart, happiness spontaneously rises in my heart. That's how gratefulness happens."
But, later in the talk, an important question comes up, "Which comes first?" Is it the happy people who are more grateful? In other words, is happiness the prerequisite for gratitude? One can easily draw this conclusion if we ascribe to the false paradigm that money is either a good motivator (research shows intrinsic motivators are much more effective) or a source of happiness (the richest countries nor the richest individuals are the happiest).

So, why exactly should we express gratitude at all?

Two reasons: physical and mental well-being. First, gratitude has been shown to protect people from both stress and depression, two things that are far too prevalent. Stress, in particular, has been shown to be an underlying issue for a range of chronic diseases. Depression and other mental (and substance abuse) disorders increased by almost 40 percent globally between 1990 and 2010.

On mental well-being, one study from 2003 emphasizes the point nicely. In two separate experiments, researchers divided participants into three groups. The first was instructed to write down, on a weekly basis for 10 weeks, up to five things they were grateful or thankful for from the previous week. The second group listed "hassles" while the third simply listed neutral life events. 

The outcome? The researchers found that the group that expressed gratitude "felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic regarding their expectations for the upcoming week." They also mentioned that this group was more likely to "help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support to another." So, not only can gratitude improve our own individual mental outlook and well-being, it fosters an increased sense of connectedness with others. As the authors rightfully titled the study, we might want to think more about "counting blessings versus burdens."


My gratitude practice takes two forms, one is periodic, the other is episodic. 

Habits structure several key aspects of my day, from when I train, to the food I eat, to when I go to bed at night. One habit I picked up late last year was to consciously express gratitude on a daily basis. I do this with a very simple tool, the Five-Minute Journal.

Growing up I went through short streaks of journalling, but the most appealing part about the Five-Minute Journal is that it's structured, consistent, targeted and quick. Every day, you answer the same five questions, three in the morning when you first wake up, and two in the evening before going to sleep.
  • What am I grateful for? 
  • What will make today great? 
  • What kind of person do I want to be today? 
  • What were three great things that happened today? 
  • What can I do better tomorrow? 
Journalling in the morning, which is usually accompanied by a cup of coffee, automatically shifts my state of mind to the positive and aspirational. This is exactly how I want to start every day. I've also found I'm most productive and creative in the morning. As a writer, I thrive off these two things. Expressing gratitude each morning frees my mind from the previous day's negativity, essentially treating the forthcoming 19 hours as a blank canvas. It's on this canvas I have the potential to paint anything I want (by answering the second and third questions). 

I've had my fair share of rocky days when things never seem to pan out quite how I want them to. We all experience these moments. Many of these situations could've been out of our control. The one thing we do have control over is how we choose to react to them (for a gripping portrayal of this concept, read Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning). By focusing on the good things from the day, or even reframing a negative experience to find the good in it, we reaffirm gratitude, and therefore our happiness.

For me, the most productive question of the five has been the last one: "What can I do better tomorrow?" This question assumes our human imperfections. However big or small, we all have goals we're striving to achieve. We all want to improve ourselves in some way. I contend it's this continuous and persistent openness to improvement that fosters personal growth and learning. 


Whether I'm standing on the start line of a local 10k or the Boston Marathon, I've also incorporated a very short and simple preparation habit. I take a moment, sometimes with my eyes closed, and think about the opportunity I'm experiencing and reflect on all the good things about my preparation to get to that moment. My training and own personal health often come to mind, but I also consciously say a big thank you to the people in my life, including my biggest supporter, my wife, who empower me to pursue my dreams and be the best person I can be. 

These quick expressions of gratitude, whether in the morning or on the start line, I believe, have helped me become a better runner, triathlete, husband and person in general. 

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