Gratitude is Not a Platitude

At this very moment, you possess a super power but you may not know it. You have at your disposal health-promoting resources that, if you tap into it, can make you happier, more satisfied and possibly less depressed. It’s called gratitude. But it won’t work for you unless you use it. Happiness won’t just appear like a lucky penny. You must go out and get it! Research shows that if you express gratitude toward others you will feel better; your well-being will improve. Sure, it’s nice for the recipient but it does wonders for the person who takes the time to share it.

My research examined one method for improving well-being: the gratitude letter. It showed that writing letters will make you feel significantly better by improving important aspects of well-being. We measured “well-being” with happiness, the emotional component; life-satisfaction, the cognitive assessment of your life; and depressive symptoms, the relative levels of depressive symptomotology that detracts from psychological health.

 Here’s how you improve your well-being…

Write three non-trivial letters of gratitude to three different people over the course of about three weeks. Don’t worry about length but put pen to paper or fingers to keys (research shows it does not matter if you write by hand or type, as long as you’re writing it out) and avoid e-mail or text messaging. Most people wrote half a page and spent about 20 minutes per letter. This is not a “thank you” note for a gift. So, as important as it is to say thank you to your aunt or uncle for the cool lumberjack beard hat or the Elizabethan portrait of your cat, the gratitude letter should not be tied to material gifts or perfunctory courtesy.

What’s that? You don’t like writing letters?

It’s important to know there are many methods for expressing gratitude and each person responds a little differently to various, so-called gratitude inductions. Sonja Lyubomirsky has produced incredible research on happiness and well-being as an intentional activity. Many authors like Lyubomirsky have shown that if we repeat the same gratitude induction over and over it has diminishing returns. Her advice (see The How of Happiness for more) will help you get the most yield from your new attitude of gratitude campaign.

  • Mix it up! Try various gratitude inductions like a gratitude journal, counting your blessings, letters of gratitude, and verbal “thank you” statements.
  • Find a good happiness-activity for yourself. When you find an activity you’re comfortable with, make sure you use it. Intersperse other gratitude activities over time, but go back to the one that works. 
  • Use it! Make the gratitude that you carry with you on a moment-to-moment basis work for you. Don’t let it go to waste.

Go, be grateful, and spread the joy!

During this holiday season of thanks and giving, make sure you give the gift of gratitude. But remember, it’s not a holiday-only behavior and in addition to making the recipient glow with appreciation, the giver benefits in big ways. You carry a reservoir of gratitude with you at all times and it’s just waiting to be used. Till the soil of gratitude and see what grows. You might be surprised but more importantly, you will be a little healthier for your efforts.