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5 Ways to Feel Thankful

November 24, 2014 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Effective tools to increase your gratitude.

In 1978, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts made a series of startling discoveries. The Illinois state lottery was new then. Common sense would say that winning a fortune would create great happiness, but there was a growing body of literature showing that even very good fortune didn’t always result in long-lasting appreciation. Were lottery winners any more aware of their blessings after winning the lottery?

Studies showed that while winning produced feelings of euphoria at first, after just a few months the effects wore off and people reverted to whatever level of happiness they’d always enjoyed. Rich or poor, it seemed that everyone had a “happiness set point,” a level of contentedness with their life that was internal, and had little to do with outside circumstances.

Researchers followed up the lottery interviews with a similar study on a very different group of people: those who had become paralyzed in accidents. If winning the lottery didn’t change people’s happiness set point to make them permanently happier, they wondered, would life-altering tragedies make victims permanently more miserable? The research found that after a few months, accident victims, too, returned to their previous levels of contentedness, their happiness set-point, despite the setbacks they now suffered.

But one exercise did permanently boost happiness: making a conscious effort to focus on our blessings. By taking time out – even as little as once a week – to stop and enumerate what we are thankful for in our lives, subjects were able to change their happiness set-points and become happier with their lives overall.

The great Rabbi Ben Zoma realized this profound truth two thousand years ago. “Who is happy?” he asked: “One who is happy with their lot” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1). We can all increase our happiness by learning how to be grateful and rediscover what we already have.

Here are five ways to increase our gratitude and expand our ability to feel thanksgiving, based on Jewish wisdom and modern research.

1. Brainstorm what you’re thankful for.

We can short-circuit our mind’s tendency to take all the good things in our lives for granted by intentionally reminding ourselves of our blessings. In one study by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, subjects who had a conversation about things they were grateful for recorded a greater sense of happiness and well-being, and this effect lasted for months.

2. Keep a Gratitude Journal.

Writing down our blessings might even be more effective. Professors Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami asked subjects to write down five things they were thankful for each week. The effects were profound: those who kept Gratitude Journals reported being more satisfied with their lives. They reported feeling more optimistic about the upcoming week, said they felt more connected with others, and had more energy than members of a control group who did not keep journals. Amazingly, they reported fewer sick days, and higher levels of exercise than those in a control group who did not keep a journal. (“Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Robert Emmons, Ph.D.) Every morning Jews get a jumpstart in gratitude by reciting a series of blessings that help us focus on the daily gifts we receive from the Almighty.

3. Write a thank you letter.

Another way to powerfully reframe our outlook and increase our ability to feel gratitude is to reach out to others and say thank you.

Each year, Prof. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan would give his students an unusual assignment: to write a thank you letter to a person who had touched them in some ways in their lives. Students reported feeling happier “100% of the time” after completing this assignment. Even more powerful, Prof. Peterson found, was asking students to track down the recipients of their letter and read it to them in person. Among students who were able to deliver their thanks in person, he found greater levels of optimism – and fewer negative thoughts – for up to a year afterwards.

4. Give yourself time to change.

In our busy world, it can be hard to take the time to change our ways of thinking. Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, whose course on Positive Psychology became the most popular class ever given at Harvard, has explored how much time is required to re-wire our emotions and make ourselves more positive, grateful people.

He cites the work of Prof. Barbara Fredrickson, who asked employees at an organization to spend twenty minutes each day thinking of the love they felt for relatives, romantic partners, and close friends in their lives. Subjects reported greater feelings of joy and happiness, and lower levels of anxiety, for many weeks after the study. They also reported feeling more grateful.

Setting aside this length of time each day is effective. For those who cannot carve out 20 minutes regularly, Prof. Ben-Shahar suggests trying to spend several seconds regularly, throughout the day, dwelling on blessings and actively experiencing gratitude.

5. Turn to a higher power.

Studies show that prayer and acknowledging a higher power can dramatically boost our gratitude. Jewish tradition presents us with opportunities to connect with the Divine throughout the day, for instance when we say blessings before and after eating food, or on special occasions like witnessing lightening or hearing thunder. These moments give us a chance to stop, think about the bigger picture for a moment, and feel awe at the bounty of the world around us.

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