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  • Writer's pictureSharon Cunliffe

The Power of Practicing Gratitude

“When we take time to notice the things that go right – it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day”

(Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology)

I really started to appreciate the power of gratitude whilst studying Positive Psychology as part of my MSc. Whilst most mainstream psychological approaches place great emphasis on focusing on the shortcomings or the limitations of the client during the treatment process, Positive Psychology recognises the importance of implementing positivity and individual strengths within the therapeutic programme, as a means of enhancing psychological well-being and personal progress.

As a volunteer addiction psychotherapist at a private rehabilitation clinic in London, gratitude was a fundamental aspect of the 12-step treatment programme. Clients were encouraged as part of their daily inventory, to list 3-4 things they had been grateful for that day. Yet, gripped in the throes of addiction and battling with the on-going willpower to sustain the physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal, finding anything to be grateful for seemed impossible. There was an ongoing misconception between the clients that gratitude was something they could only experience when they had finished treatment and when they had mastered their recoveries.

We have all experienced moments of gratitude in our lives, that true sense of happiness when something has or is going well, or when someone has done us a good deed. Yet, being grateful is not a natural existence. We have become so tied up in our busy and stressful lives that our gratitude is often assigned to the back seat, awaiting the next momentous occasion. Cultivating gratitude in our lives is a skill and like other skills, it needs to be practiced.

When we choose to look for negativity in life, we are sure to find it, but if we choose to notice the positive aspects of our daily existence, they will be plentiful. When we are facing difficulties, it can be hard to see beyond them. Yet, like the clients at the rehabilitation clinic soon learnt, finding strength to look beyond our difficulties, helps improve our ability to cope better with them.

People who practice gratitude, take time out each day to notice and appreciate the small aspects of their day, that have made life somewhat nicer or a little easier. There are so many things that we frequently overlook or disregard, such as the cup of tea someone made for us, getting a seat on the train, a hug from a loved one or sleeping in a warm bed.

In support of the clients at the rehabilitation clinic and in part to practice what I preached! I decided to start my own gratitude journal. At the end of every day for six months I wrote down a handful of things that had made my day that bit easier or that bit nicer. Some days I wrote three things, some days ten. The number wasn’t important. It was about looking beyond the stresses of life and the challenges I was facing and appreciating the value of what I had. I’m not going to lie, some days it was hard, especially when I was busy, tired or in a bad mood (yes it occasionally happens!!), but, as with most things, I knew if I wanted to reap the rewards, I had to put in the groundwork. I can honestly say that my gratitude journal helped me so much, in numerous ways and gave me the voice to encourage my clients to do the same. It made me realise, how easy it is to be so hyper-focused on the faults in our lives and the things that go wrong, that we become blind to all the good things in our lives and all the things that go right.

The good new is that incorporating gratitude into our lives doesn’t cost a penny or take up much time, yet the benefits are countless:

Gratitude can improve psychological health and well-being:

1. Multiple studies investigating the link between gratitude and well-being have found a positive association between gratitude and increased happiness. Practising gratitude shifts our focus. When we focus solely on the difficult aspects of our lives or our personal struggles, it can lead to a multitude of harmful emotions, such as anger, disappointment, stress, resentment or depression. Yet, when we learn to acknowledge the goodness in our lives and appreciate what we have and what has gone well, it feeds the brain’s reward system, enabling us to feel more optimistic and less overwhelmed with the challenges we may be facing.

Gratitude can improve our physical health:

2. Practising gratitude teaches us to look at the good things in our lives, which in turn fosters positive emotions. These positive emotions have a powerful effect on our emotion regulation. When we think positively, we feel better and this can lower our stress levels, our blood pressure and heart rate. What's-more, positive emotions activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to relax more, aiding the ability to sleep better and for longer.

Gratitude can improve relationships:

3. Practising gratitude can also strengthen existing relationships and helps us to make new connections. For example, when we show our gratitude to a partner, a friend or a colleague, we appear more likeable, more appreciative and more pro-socially orientated. In turn, others are more likely to warm towards us and be more willing to help us again in the future or to be more appreciative of our part in the relationship.

Showing our appreciation and gratitude to others also enables us to look beyond ourselves and at external sources of happiness. When we appreciate what others do for us, it helps us to feel loved, supported and cared for, which in turn increases our self-esteem and sense of self-value.

Today as I write this, it reminds me to start up my journal again. In life it is so easy to let things slip, we start to feel better so we resort back to our old ways. No matter who we are, or how successful we become, we will all go through difficult times in life and be faced with challenges and although no amount of gratitude can prevent this, it can enable us to see the bigger picture of our lives. Although there are no magic buttons, there are many simple techniques, that we can incorporate into our lives, in order to increase our happiness and well-being.

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that brings us happiness”.


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