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Previously, we explored how the character trait of gratitude can have long-lasting impacts on our health and well-being. Unfortunately, character traits are internal and can be hard to change. Thankfully, scientists are a creative lot and have been working for decades attempting to find out how to increase gratitude. Note that the following methods are still experimental; positive results have been found, but the sample sizes have been relatively small. These interventions have shown increased psychological well-being in the form of increased happiness and satisfaction, as well as fewer depressive symptoms in adults. Please note that this is not a substitute for professional psychological or medical help! Instead, these are interventions that may have positive effects when adhered to. The interventions are: Gratitude journaling, Gratitude letters, Mental subtraction, and Experiential consumption.
Gratitude journaling is easy and effective; you just write down things you are thankful for. Various methods have been studied, including the amount (3-5 things) and the frequency (daily or weekly) of journaling. The most effective method I’ve seen is to write three things you are grateful for that happened on the same day. Generally, people wrote a sentence or two about each event. Keeping it limited to daily events helps keep this task from becoming stale. In addition, writing the causes of those events seems to help make the results long-lasting. In one study, a week of gratitude journaling led to increased measures of happiness for the next six months. The idea behind gratitude journaling is that by focusing on the positives, we reinforce those mental pathways and make it more likely that we think about positive things.
Gratitude letters are a little more intense than gratitude journaling. In this task, participants write a letter to someone who has been particularly kind to them but hasn’t been properly thanked before. Ideally, the letter should be hand-delivered for maximum effect. By showing gratitude to others, participants had higher scores associated with gratitude themselves. This one is a particularly tactile activity, which may be helpful to some. The effects of this intervention were shown to last over a month on average.
Mental subtraction is an interesting intervention. In this activity, participants imagined and wrote about a positive event that occurred in their lives and what their lives would be like had the event never taken place. Alternatively, participants were asked to describe how a positive event was surprising to them, forcing them to think of ways it may not have occurred. This was shown to have positive effects on people’s mental state. By looking at the ways things may not have occurred, it might make people more grateful that they occurred at all.
Experiential consumption is an interesting “intervention.” When looking at habits of what people buy, scientists have found that spending money on experiences (trips, music events, etc.) seems to increase people’s happiness and gratitude more than buying tangible items (furniture, clothes, etc.).The thinking behind why experiences may be beneficial is that they are more personal and intrinsic. Experiences are less likely to be compared to others, more likely to be incorporated into who you are, and more likely to be social. Material items are easy to compare to others and unlikely to make lasting impacts on how you see yourself. In addition, ownership is defined as exclusive use, making it an inherently antisocial state.
These methods of increasing our gratitude may not be the end-all of increasing our happiness, but they are a good start. We have a few tips to increase the success rate of these interventions. First, a desire for self-improvement helps a lot. If you want to be more thankful this season, it will make each of these tasks easier. Second, expectations matter. The benefits of these interventions may not change your life, but they are pretty sure to improve how you feel about it; plus, they are basically no-risk (unless your experiential consumption is skydiving). Finally, it is easier to follow through on engaging activities. Things like writing the causes of a thankful event may help keep things engaging and fun, making you more likely to complete the task. Feel free to modify these as needed to keep yourself engaged and having fun with them. Hopefully, these ideas help increase your gratitude this Thanksgiving season. Thank you, as always, for reading!
Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA
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