If you want to find happiness, "use the language of thankfulness," advises University of California at Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, Ph.D., author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. "Grateful people take an approach that makes them aware of the positives. And it has health benefits." Here, Emmons talks to us about cultivating gratitude and being a thankful person.
What are the health benefits of being thankful?
"Grateful people have higher energy levels; they feel more active and alert," says Emmons. "Overall stress levels are lower as well, research shows. These individuals have a calmness as well as energy that can short-circuit the stress response. It leaves them less susceptible to stress-related diseases. They also tend to take better care of their bodies, exercising more and enjoying a better diet, and their sleep is longer and more refreshing."
Can you really learn to become a more grateful person?
"Some people are grateful by nature, but you can cultivate gratitude," Emmons says. "Journaling as a daily practice is a direct route to becoming more grateful. Just keep a record of those things or people in your life you are grateful for. In our studies, we ask people to do this for two or three weeks, but they keep doing it after the study ends. We check back with them six months later, and they are still keeping a gratitude journal."
What kinds of gifts elicit gratitude?
"To experience gratitude, we need to perceive that the person did something for us that cost some effort, that they really wanted to please us. It's not a question of how much the gift costs. When a person puts himself or herself into the gift, that's a pearl of great price. What elicits gratitude is that the person really thought about us and our well-being, about what we would like. Our concern is their concern, so we feel esteemed by that person."
Should we expect gratitude for gifts we give?
"We often have expectations that people will be overwhelmingly grateful to us. We expect gratitude. We may even demand gratitude. But since we don't have control over other people's reactions, these expectations or demands can be a recipe for disaster. It all comes back to our own gratefulness.
"What grateful people have is the ability to minimize the negatives and extract the maximum from the positives. They talk about gifts, but not the ones that are wrapped under the tree. They see others as givers, not takers or competitors. They focus on how they are fortunate, living in abundance. The opposite approach is to focus on resentment and deprivation, on loss, on a sense of entitlement or deservedness."
What if you have serious health problems? How can you feel grateful then?
"There's no denying that there's adversity in life, but grateful people can frame their experiences to extract maximum enjoyment. It's a deeper attitude. It goes beyond whether you're in pain or not sleeping well or are diagnosed with a chronic disease. You can't force that feeling, of course. But neither do you have to become your disease. What matters is your view of life in its entirety.
"The interesting thing about chronic disease is that six months or more after the diagnosis, people often say it’s the best thing that happened to them. With chronic disease, you are often forced to rely on other people, and this can open you up. It shatters the illusion of self-reliance and calls us to another level of awareness, which can activate our gratefulness.
"You may not have a reason to feel grateful, but ask yourself: If I wanted to, could I find something to be grateful for? It might make you feel better, and it certainly won't do any harm."
When is a good time to start practicing gratitude?
"A lot of people think that happiness or gratitude or joy depends on life circumstances—that is, if only you got a raise or a new house. But you can make the decision right now to try to be grateful. You can't wake up and say you'll feel gratitude or happiness, but you can vow to practice gratitude. It's about balancing every complaint that comes out of your mouth with gratitude. When you practice this, the benefits magnify. Eventually, it becomes automatic."