Wellness Tries: Gratitude

Katherine Tries

Happiness Hack: Gratitude

Each quarter, our wellness team tries and reviews a popular wellness trend. This quarter, we're trying happiness hacks, and Kaitlyn is trying out gratitude.

Picture of Kaitlyn in front of the Garden of Hope next to a picture of her on top of a rock in national park.

Happiness Hacks

“Wellness Tries” is a quarterly series where the GatorCare wellness team tries out and reviews different wellness trends, so you can see what might work for you! This quarter, we’re testing out various “happiness hacks” from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness. In Lyubomirsky’s book, she claims that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics, 10% is determined by our circumstances, and 40% is determined by our thoughts and actions. The happiness hacks. These strategies are research-supported methods to increase happiness levels to help us max out that 40% we can control.

Our team chose this project back in January when life looked very different. Most of us started our hacks before the pandemic hit hard and continued our experiments into our current shelter-at-home situation. While the implementation changed quite a bit over the course of our hacks, we all agreed that the focus on increasing our happiness could not have come at a better time.

This week, Kaitlyn is diving into gratitude and how practicing and expressing gratitude can improve happiness. 

What is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, the world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”

The concept of gratitude may have been ingrained in your life early on. Your family or close ones may have stressed the importance of saying thank you when you received a gift or someone went out of their way for you. Perhaps you heard phrases growing up like “count your blessings” or “look on the bright side” when faced with a difficult situation. Maybe your family went around the table before Thanksgiving dinner and shared what each person was grateful for before enjoying the meal.  Whatever your relationship with gratitude may be, I encourage you to read on and see if any of the strategies are something you might be interested in trying to improve your happiness.

As mentioned in Lyubomirsky’s book, and through my own personal journey of practicing gratitude, gratitude is much more than just saying thank you. Prior to our wellness team trying some of the happiness activities, I have practiced gratitude in the past, and I will touch on the strategy I used later in this article. Gratitude is something I often promote as a way to reduce stress; as a Health Educator I am familiar with the positive impacts gratitude has on individual health and wellbeing.  I wanted to challenge myself with some of the methods referenced in the book for expressing gratitude in hopes of improving my own perspective and my overall happiness.

The Strategies

  • Gratitude journal: involves physically writing down what you are grateful for at a frequency that works for you.
  • Paths to gratitude: a variety of methods to practice gratitude. This could be setting aside a time to contemplate each of your objects of gratitude and reflect. It might be identifying one good thing each day. It might be acknowledging one ungrateful thought and substituting it for a grateful one. Or maybe showing off something you are passionate about to another person for a fresh perspective and an opportunity to appreciate that thing a little more.
  • Keep the strategy fresh: introducing a variety of practices so that it doesn’t feel like another task you have to do, and alternating those practices regularly.
  • Express gratitude directly to another: expressing gratitude by phone, face-to-face, or through writing.

My Expectations and Experience

As I mentioned, I have tried a gratitude practice before. Last year for about six weeks, I wrote down something I was grateful for every single day. I enjoyed this, thinking about at least one good thing. However, I remember falling off track and backlogging on some days. The longer I did it in this way, the more I felt like it was something I had to do.

I hung onto that little notebook and looked through it before reintroducing this practice. I found myself feeling really good about some of the positive things I wrote down last year, almost as if that feeling of “another thing I have to do” never existed. This year, I decided I wanted to utilize the first strategy Lyubomirsky suggests, gratitude journaling, but a little more infrequently. I didn’t set aside a specific time every week to journal, but I did keep the journal in plain sight and picked it up when I felt like I needed it or wanted to reflect on something that happened.

Less than one week into trying this happiness strategy, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global health pandemic. As a result, I had to cancel a personal trip to see family I have not seen in a while, and a trip to celebrate some big moments in their lives. As all our lives are being completely altered, my gratitude plan had to adjust too.

The first strategy I tried was journaling. I found that especially during this difficult time, this helped me pick out the positives and find the light in many situations. It allowed me to write everything I was thinking down, organize my thoughts, and see all the good things that came out of this situation. Although I wasn’t able to see my family, I was able to virtually spend time with them, and this has become a recurring pattern. I find myself connecting with important people in my life more frequently than I did on a normal basis. By writing about these experiences of my new normal, I felt better about the uncertainty in the situation at hand.

The second strategy I tried was writing a letter of gratitude to someone who has impacted my life positively. Lyubomirsky quotes a study from her lab where they found that simply writing the letter produced happiness boosts, whether it was delivered to the person or not. I am not sure why, but this was one of the hardest activities for me to sit down and actually do. While I intended to handwrite and mail the letter, I modified this a bit by typing it out since I handwrote in my journal. I won’t say if I delivered it or who I wrote to, but I will say finally writing it out made me feel really good. I highly recommend this strategy.

Lyubomirsky encourages using a variety of strategies and methods to practice and express gratitude. Throughout this wellness try, I felt like I always had gratitude on my mind. One of the experiences I wasn’t expecting and I think it’s important to note, is how I felt when someone expressed gratitude towards me. Perhaps it was so meaningful because I had gratitude on my mind all the time, but either way I encourage you to think about how it makes you feel next time someone expresses gratitude towards you. All in all, I found that practicing this strategy helped me see the positives throughout my day and improved my perspective on various situations, especially through this uncertain time. Not only did I feel the happiness boost, I had an increase in my happiness score after expressing gratitude for just one month. If you want to improve or boost your happiness, I encourage you to try this strategy on for size.