Some of the people I appreciate most are the ones who are honest about who they are no matter the situation they find themselves in. They seem to have a supernatural knack for balancing between being overly pessimistic (i.e., seeing life as worse than it really is) and being overly optimistic (i.e., pretending life’s hardships don’t exist at all.) It’s a hard line to walk, but I know a number of people who do it well, and I have immense respect for them.
I used to lump gratitude into that “overly optimistic” category.
I don’t mean the emotion of gratitude, or the feeling of thankfulness for a gift, but the actual practice of gratitude, the act of consciously focusing on something you are grateful for and attributing it to something or someone else.
luckily for me, those people I really respect all share something in common: they practice gratitude.
That’s helped to change my mind on the subject...well that and the slew of studies that show just how beneficial practicing gratitude is.
Most studies focused on the benefit of practicing gratitude as a mentally healthy individual, but one of the more compelling studies I read set itself apart by measuring the effects of gratitude practiced by people who reported clinically low levels of mental health, most of whom were struggling with depression or anxiety.
The study split 300 participants into 3 groups, each one with a different task.
Group One wrote a letter of gratitude to another person once a week for three weeks. Group Two wrote a letter about their deepest thoughts and feelings about a negative experience once a week for three weeks. Group Three acted as the control and had no writing activity.
Compared to both the control group and the group recording negative experiences, Group One reported significantly better mental health. When asked again four weeks and twelve weeks after the trial had ended, these benefits persisted.
What’s remarkable is that these twelve weeks of positive changes to the participants' mental health came from a relatively small time spent with gratitude; just one letter a week for three weeks.
The practice of gratitude is worth a second look, but before we dive into what that looks like, it’s important to get more context on our emotions as a whole.
positive and negative affect
While there’s a wide range of emotions we experience every day, the terms positive and negative affect describe the extent to which we experience and act on the positive or negative emotions we feel.
Positive affect includes emotions like joy, hope, and satisfaction while negative affect includes emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and loneliness.
an emotion can be labeled positive or negative, but either way it serves a purpose.
When it comes to negative emotions, the reason is usually readily understandable. We feel fear when we’re in a life threatening situation. We feel anger as we prepare for a fight.
Negative emotions often prepare us for the situations we are in by urging us toward a specific action. They make our way of thinking rigid, helping us make snap decisions to keep us alive. This process describes what we know as “flight or fight.”
When this happens, we aren’t in an explorative mode. While in the middle of a fight with someone we aren’t thinking about their story, that they’re equally as complex as we are, or their motives. Negative emotions lock down your thoughts and point you in one direction, the one that historically kept humans alive.
while negative emotions guided us towards specific actions, ultimately to protect us, our positive emotions play a guide as well, but to what is a much broader category of action.
For example, joy prompts us to play, and play can be physical, social, or even intellectual. Curiosity prompts us to explore and learn.
Contentment prompts us to savor what we are experiencing and integrate it into our way of thinking.
You’ll notice our positive emotions guide us towards expanding our ways of thinking and experiencing life, while our negative emotions point us to the same rigid responses.
Ok, let’s talk about bears.
bears and the purpose of emotions
Assume for a moment you’re a bear.
Generally speaking, you have two big jobs when it comes to staying alive: protecting your young and finding food. Bears don’t have predators, but from time to time, they’ll fight one another (or anything that gets too close) in defense of their cubs. And don’t forget, bears are also big and require a lot of food to gain the fat they need to survive the winter.
These needs (or should we say...bare necessities) require different but important reactions and skills. To fight, you must be aggressive, vigilant, and make good decisions quickly. To gather food, you need to be patient while exploring different landscapes, knowing what you can eat and where to find it.
Positive and negative emotions are much the same way: useful in their proper contexts, helping you stay alive.
negative emotions, like the ones experienced in a bear fight, keep you alive in the immediate situation.
positive emotions, like those that come from enjoying a big meal while preparing for winter, equip you for future situations.
Let’s take joy as an example to see how positive emotions help you build for the future.
As mentioned before, the emotion of joy prompts playfulness. Play ranges from social play, most obviously seen in children, to intellectual play, as in the experience of solving a complex puzzle or exploring a new skill.
Both of these actions build a resource for the future. Social play helps form new relationships and deepen existing ones, creating strong social networks that are particularly helpful in times of crisis. Intellectual play helps us discover new abilities and build upon existing ones which is crucial in our ability to thrive as we move into our futures.
again, positive emotions serve the needs of our futures, and negative emotions serve the needs of our immediate present.
Back to you, the bear.
What happens if you decide to go to one extreme of this positive/negative spectrum.
Say you become suddenly obsessed with finding food and only that.
Sure, you’re more than ready for winter, but you end up ignoring the reality of another hungry bear fighting you for all that food you’re hoarding. You fail to be vigilant and lack the readiness to think on your feet, so you lose your fight, food, or worse, your life.
This situation describes the extreme where negative emotion is intentionally ignored and does more harm than good.
Bear-You won’t let that happen again, so you decide to go to the other extreme.
You become hyper-vigilant, looking for the danger that surely lurks around every corner. Threats become exaggerated and all-encompassing in your head, and the other bears have started to notice. They’ve begun calling you paranoid, but of course, they would; that’s what any bear plotting to steal your food would say.
Speaking of food–whoops– all that time focused on immediate dangers means you forgot to ready yourself for your winter hibernation.
This situation describes an extreme where one lives in a constant state of stress.
There are a lot of resources on stress and what it does to you, and we suggest spending some time learning more about it if you’re interested, but for our purposes here, we’ll summarize it by saying: stress is very bad for you.
It’s difficult to understate that. Prolonged stress wreaks havoc on your body and its ability to fight off any sort of problem that may occur in the long term.
rumination, gratitude, and the tightrope walk
So how do we walk this tightrope between the two extremes of our positive and negative emotions, acknowledging our daily ups and downs without being at the mercy of them?
the answer i’m proposing (as well as science) is gratitude.
In another study, this one by Emmons and McCullough, participants are again split into three groups. For ten weeks, Group One turned in a list of five things they were grateful for. Group Two turned in a list of five things they considered “hassles.” These hassles include things like traffic, messy kitchens, and being unappreciated by a friend. The control group wrote down five arbitrary events that happened to them in the past week.
The study found that holding onto good and bad emotions had the same potent, yet opposite, effect. Nine weeks after the trials finished, the study found participants in the gratitude group experienced the feeling of gratitude 24% more frequently than the control group. In contrast, the hassle group experienced the feeling of gratitude 28% less frequently than the control.
Participants in the gratitude group also had a more positive perspective on life as a whole and were more optimistic about the week ahead.
Basically, Group One retained positive emotions while Group Two retained negative emotions.
I’ll speak for myself here, but I know how to hold on to a negative emotion or two. This kind of holding on is called rumination, and I’m sure you can already guess it’s not good for you.
rumination is the obsessive replaying of negative emotions or situations.
It is not the exploration of a negative situation to figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, or ways to avoid it in the future. Rumination is a preoccupation and constant reliving of that situation.
The emotions that arise from a negative situation are meant to guide us to action, so it doesn’t serve us to remain stuck replaying them. (Remember the bear who forgot to prepare for winter? That’s rumination.)
Gratitude takes our emotions and extends their life without the excessive replaying that we see in rumination.
by taking the time to pause and appreciate a positive experience or emotion (even ones that come from a negative experience) we remind ourselves of all the good we have experienced.
A quick disclaimer here: If you’re struggling with depression or grieving, we are not suggesting you stop thinking about those things and move on. During these times, our brains function differently, and the standard functions of gratitude don’t quite apply. If you are struggling with depression or thoughts of harm, please seek professional help and visit www.samhsa.gov
I misunderstood gratitude because I saw it as rose-colored lenses, tinting the way we see the world.
I now realize gratitude is what we choose to do with the genuine positive emotions we experience.
I’ve come to think about gratitude as a cup. A cup lets us hold on and savor what’s inside instead of letting it spill out, passing more quickly than it needs to. And I see negative emotions as a sieve, allowing us to recognize the experience, sort out what’s useful, and let the rest go.
It makes sense to linger here. Gratitude and the positive emotions that accompany it place us in the space of learning, exploration, and motivation. And unlike stress, it’s a healthy place for us to stay.
tips for practicing gratitude
There are many ways to incorporate gratitude into your life. As you may have noticed, the studies we mentioned offered a few ideas, but here’s a shortlist of ideas to help you get started.
01 | MAKE A DAILY OR WEEKLY LIST OF THINGS YOU'RE THANKFUL FOR
Either way will work, but we recommend writing it down on paper, as our brains
integrate information better this way.
02 | WRITE A LETTER EACH MONTH TO SOMEONE YOU'RE GRATEFUL FOR
It doesn’t have to be shared, but consider sharing your gratitude with others as they often make great conversations and foster relationships. However, if you decide to keep your letter private, it’s okay as you’ll still receive the benefits of gratitude.
03 | DON'T EXPECT GRATITUDE TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE IN A DAY
Most studies we’ve read measure results over a 10-week period where gratitude is practiced daily or weekly, with more potent effects attributed to everyday practice. While you can’t expect changes overnight, ten weeks is a relatively short amount of time to see a positive difference in how you
view your life.
04 | LEAN IN TO HELPING OTHERS
Gratitude is a known inducer of kindness and generosity. Multiple studies find people are more likely
to help friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues after practicing gratitude then before.
learn to walk that tightrope well by cultivating these gratitude tips into your own practice, so you can experience all the benefits that follow