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Reasons to be cheerful: the compelling science of gratitude lists

How many times have you found something irritating today? Did someone cut you off on the way to work? Was the coffee burnt? Did someone not reply to your email? Did your partner forget to do the dishes? Again?

And how many times today did you find something to be grateful for? Often times we lose sight of the forest for the trees; we focus on life’s tiny burdens and forget to remain mindful of our blessings. Throughout history, gratitude has played an important role in many spiritual and secular practices, but recently gratitude has had a renaissance in popularity thanks to the pop-culture application of gratitude journals. Searching for “gratitude journal” brings up over 3.5 million hits on Google and over 4,000 books on Amazon. UC Berkeley has an entire department devoted to studying gratitude, compassion, and other related “positive psychology” subjects called Greater Good Science Center.  Oprah has be an advocate for gratitude journals for years. Various psychologists and neurologists have been studying how gratitude lists impact human thought and behaviors. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis and author of four books on gratitude, began focusing on the concept with a series of psychological studies that began in 2003.

One of Emmons’ earliest studies on gratitude (from 2003) is titled, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens. In this study, participants were randomly assigned one of three different aspects of their lives to elaborate upon: hassles, things they were grateful for, or more neutral life events. Simple enough, right? The participants in the study who were regularly asked to list what they were grateful for rather than what was burdening them experienced a variety of improvements. So, why is that? Emmons felt that a study by influential positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson spoke volumes on the subject. “[Fredrickson] has argued that positive emotions broaden mindsets and build enduring personal resources. These resources function as reserves to be drawn on in times of need.” So we don’t just feel grateful when writing gratitude lists, we can draw on that feeling later.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that negativity is fashionable or culturally appropriate. We’re fed images of war and conflict; advertising often teaches us that we can never be good enough. These narratives don’t need to define our self-image. In fact, they often have little to do with who we are and how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis. The choice belongs to us. Making gratitude lists can bring us back to a place of natural reflection, where we focus on what’s good rather than what’s bad. On top of all of this, Emmons argues that gratitude, “...inspires prosocial reciprocity.” In other words, when we learn to focus on what we appreciate rather than what we lack, we start to realize how much we’ve been given. And then we start to give back.  That desire to be more charitable may be gratitude’s most tangible benefit in the social and physical worlds, and remains the basis of many spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Frankly, what’s not to like?

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Making gratitude lists can bring us back to a place of natural reflection, where we focus on what’s good rather than what’s bad.

Charlie Ambler

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