Gratitude is More Powerful Than I Thought

How (and why) to be more grateful

Hello to the 466 Intentional Wisdom’ers receiving today's newsletter. I am GRATEFUL for every one of you. Seriously. I'm so thankful that you allow me to occupy this space in your inbox, and more importantly, in your brain, every week. I spent this week thinking about gratitude. I was feeling like I needed to stop focusing on the things that go wrong in my life, and instead, start noticing everything that goes right. The more I dug into it, the more blown away I was by just how powerful a force gratitude actually is, not just mentally but physically as well. As always, I tried to break it down into a few strategies that you can actually use in your own life. I hope you find a nugget or two in here that you find valuable. And if you're reading this and haven't yet subscribed, I'd love for you to join this community of smart, curious, and motivated readers.

💡The big idea

Not long ago, I wrote about the concept of hedonic adaptation, which is the idea that we revert to our mean level of happiness no matter what life throws at us. This is a welcome phenomenon when bad things happen. It helps to ensure that we're not forever depressed when we face unfortunate circumstances. But it's less helpful when good things happen. We quickly adapt to our new situation after getting promoted or receiving a wonderful piece of news—in other words, our appreciation is fleeting.

This is a problem because gratitude, it turns out, is insanely powerful.

This week, I spent time combing through articles on the psychological and physical benefits of gratitude. What I found was astounding. Here is just a short selection of the many potential benefits associated with higher levels of gratitude.

  • Less fatigue, and better sleep

  • Lower inflammation in the body

  • Reduced blood pressure

  • Greater neural modulation in the prefrontal cortex (Don’t ask me follow-up questions on this one, please.)

  • Better digestion(!)

  • Higher probability of regular exercise

  • Increased happiness & psychological well-being

  • Improved decision-making

  • Reduced feelings of anxiety and depression

  • Reduced risk of self-harm or suicide

  • Lower likelihood of being bullied

  • Higher self-esteem

  • Wider social networks & deeper relationships

  • Improved romantic relationships

Seems too good to be true, right? If I told you that you could take a magic pill every morning that would bestow all of these benefits on you without any downside, I'm guessing you'd take it.

When looking at a list like this, my first instinct is to be skeptical. Surely, some of this must be correlation rather than causation, right? And truthfully, I think that's got to be at least a factor. But what amazed me as I dug through article after article on the topic, is that research studies across the fields of academia, medicine, and psychology almost universally support the assertion that gratitude can have real, tangible positive impacts on our bodies and our minds. This article from PositivePsychology.com does a nice job summing up the many benefits of gratitude and cites many of the studies that support these claims.

It's fascinating to me that gratitude literally rewires your brain to be happier. Indeed, scientists have observed actual physiological changes in our neural networks resulting from the regular practice of gratitude. That's pretty wild when you think about it—literally rewiring the brain.

If we believe that we can possibly achieve even some of the benefits listed above—and I think most of us do probably have an intuitive sense of how powerful gratitude can be—then the next obvious question is: Exactly what do we need to do to make this happen?

Practicing gratitude

Unfortunately, just having a vague commitment to "be more grateful" is probably not going to have much of an impact. It's likely about as effective as those throwaway promises we make to ourselves to eat healthier, exercise more, or be more present with our families. Without tangible, measurable methods in place, we are unlikely to cultivate any new habit—including a gratitude practice.

And that's what it is really, a practice—in the way that meditation is practice, yoga is a practice, and even writing is a practice. It’s something we intentionally focus on in an effort to get better.

So what are some of the tactics that have proven most impactful when it comes to gratitude? Here are a few that seem to come up time and time again in the research as being among the most effective when it comes to driving measurable change.

  1. Keep a gratitude journal 📚 — Okay, hear me out. This sounds a little bit hokey. But actually, it may be the most effective method of all. Numerous studies have shown clear changes in brain activity and measurable, positive psychological boosts from this practice. By forcing yourself to write down what you are thankful for daily, you are actually forging new neural pathways and changing the way you think (and feel) by changing what you're focused on (the good vs. the bad). If you're strapped for time like me, try what I do: Keep a small notebook in an obvious place where you cannot miss it every day (for me, it's in the middle of my desk) and just write down one thing every morning that you are thankful for. Just one thing. And see how long you can keep the streak. See? I need to gamify it. It’s kind of an addiction. But an effective one…

  2. Practice gratitude meditation 🧘‍♀️— Okay, another one here where there may be some skepticism. But I'll tell you what, when I have actually felt (not thought, but felt) the power of gratitude it is during a gratitude-focused meditation. I wrote all about meditation a while back. I've tried all the apps. I'm back to Headspace, which works the best for me. They have a 30-day gratitude practice. Just 10 minutes per day. And basically what you do is concentrate on one thing or one person you are really grateful for. In terms of rewiring your brain, changing your focus, and again, making you FEEL it, this is an incredibly powerful method.

  3. Tell someone you appreciate them 🙏— Many of the research studies have shown material improvements in happiness stemming from the sharing of one's appreciation for someone else. You'd think the one being told how much they are appreciated would benefit (and they do) but the effects can be just, if not more, powerful for the one expressing appreciation. If you want to get really wild, some of the studies and the personal experience of A.J. Jacobs (whose work I share below) suggest that writing a letter to someone about how much you appreciate them and then actually reading it to them—while super-awkward—is basically off the charts in terms of the benefit it has for you. Along these lines, studies also show that focusing on someone else's happiness (ie. trying to make them happier) also results in greater happiness for you.

  4. Notice what goes right 🌻 — Maybe it really is the little things in life, but research shows that the more we focus on (and appreciate) the small, seemingly routine things in life—a sunrise, a piece of art, the movements of an animal—the happier we are. Of course, as we go through our day-to-day lives, our focus naturally tends to be on what's going wrong. The person at work driving us crazy. The annoying habit our child has developed. The hefty bill we just received in the mail. And we almost never focus on what is going right. The health of our family. The conversation with a good friend. The perfectly ripe avocado we just cut into (just kidding that never happens). If we can change our focus here—and the gratitude journal may be a good start as a tactic to do so—we can change our frame of mind. And downstream from a healthier frame of mind are all those benefits listed above.

  5. Count your blessings 😴— This is similar to the one above but specific to bedtime. One of the positive effects that people experience time and time again in these gratitude studies is improved sleep. Some recommend gratitude journaling right before bed as a way to calm the mind. I suspect a gratitude meditation would have a similar impact. One method for dealing with insomnia recommended by A.J. Jacobs is going through the alphabet and for each letter thinking of something you are truly grateful for. Again, a lot of this sounds hokey. (Am I using that word right, by the way?) That is until you try it, and it puts you peacefully to sleep.

I think to really achieve the greatest benefits of gratitude, we need to do more than simply go through the motions and tick the boxes. We really do need to feel the emotion of gratitude for it to drive all of those positive physical and psychological changes. Which one of these methods (or maybe it's another one?) would do that for you? For me, I think they're all helpful and I'm sure one builds upon another, but the one where I can actually feel the emotion and observe tangible shifts in my mindset is meditation. And that... is why I have a large whiteboard staring me in the face every day with my current meditation streak. Because even though I realize all the incredible benefits, if it is not almost literally smacking me in the face—if it is not incredibly easy and obvious—I won't do it. And it's too important for me not to do.

Ironically, being more grateful is just about the most selfish thing we can do for ourselves.

Isn't it amazing that just by refocusing our attention on what is going right rather than what is going wrong, that we can change so much in our bodies and minds?

I think so. And I'm pretty grateful for that.

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Thanks as always for reading. I appreciate you.

— Greg


Image credit: Nathan Dumlao @ Unsplash.com

Extra credit: Podcasts🎙, Articles🧾, and What I'm Thankful For🙏

Much of today's article was inspired by a brilliant monologue of a podcast episode of the Tim Ferriss Show that was guest-hosted by author and all-around entertaining guy, A.J. Jacobs, who is probably most famous for his TheYear of Living Biblically (which he did in THE most literal sense—including stoning, with pebbles, adulterers).

Jacobs has also appeared on many episodes of the James Altucher Show, including this one where he talks all about gratitude.

Also, if you'd like to do further reading on this topic, here are few of the articles that I found valuable. Let me know what else I should read.

28 Benefits of Gratitude & Most Significant Research Findings — PositivePsychology
Gratitude Literally Rewires Your Brain — NHAHealth.com
The Incredible Power of Gratitude — Manhattan Mental Health Counseling
Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier — Harvard Health Publishing

And in closing this week, I thought it would only be appropriate to mention what I'm thankful for. There is so much, but two, in particular, jump out to me at this very moment:

  1. My awesome wife who amazes me every day with how smart, kind, funny, and thoughtful she is in every part of her life.

  2. This amazing note that I found from my dad buried in an old book, which I photographed and shared on Twitter this week. I was a little bit of a handful that year… What a treat to find.

That's it! I hope you have an awesome week. And for those in the U.S., enjoy the 4th of July!

— Greg