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October 8, 2020

6 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude and Improve Your Well-Being

The following is adapted from Called to Care.

Who do you think has more emotional and physical wellbeing: a person who won the lottery, or a person who keeps a gratitude journal? It may surprise you, but over the long-term, the gratitude journalers win out. 

The great motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” Research has shown that he was right. Gratitude is one of the top three strengths that predict happiness and satisfaction, or what is often referred to as subjective well-being. Gratitude also reduces feelings of envy, makes our memories happier, makes us experience more good feelings, and helps us bounce back from stress. 

Gratitude is fundamental for maintaining your own well-being, and it’s also one of the easiest emotions you can cultivate within yourself. Here are six simple practices that will help you harness the power of gratitude and, as a result, become a healthier, happier person. 

1. The Blessings Exercise

Participants in one study were asked to write down five things for which they are grateful once a week for ten weeks; another group was asked to list five daily hassles. The results were impressive: relative to the control group, the participants who expressed gratitude felt more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Even their health received a boost; they reported fewer physical symptoms (e.g., headache, acne, coughing, and nausea) and more time spent exercising.  

The positive psychologists Seligman, Rashid, and Parks showed the benefits of this “blessings exercise” in depressed patients. Human beings are naturally biased toward focusing on (and remembering) the negative, which is further exacerbated by depression. The aim of the blessings exercise is to refocus the patient’s attention, memory, and expectations away from the negative and toward the positive.  

2. Write a Gratitude Letter

Every February 18th, the positive psychology academic community encourages an exercise in honor of one of its founders, Christopher Peterson. Peterson’s extensive contributions to positive psychology include being author and co-author of more than 350 scholarly publications and books, and he is known for his mantra “other people matter.” 

This exercise involves writing a handwritten letter to a person you are particularly grateful to have in your life. It is helpful to be detailed and express all of the wonderful qualities about this person and how they have personally affected your life for the better. It is highly recommended to personally deliver this message.

3. Keep a Journal

In his book Thanks, Dr. Robert Emmons details a study in which one group of subjects were told to write five things they were grateful for each week, while another group was told to write five things they were displeased about each week. After ten weeks, the results revealed that those who wrote about gratitude were twenty-five percent happier than the other group and the control group. Additionally, they reported more exercise and fewer health complaints than the other groups. 

While writing about gratitude in general can be beneficial, research also shows that the more specific you are about what you are grateful for, the more beneficial your gratitude journaling will be. In a study from the University of Southern California, researchers found that test subjects who wrote five sentences about one thing they were grateful for were happier and more energetic compared to test subjects who were asked to write about just one sentence about five things they were grateful for over the course of ten weeks. 

4. Write “Thank You” Notes

In his book 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, John Kralik explains how writing one thank you note each day for 365 consecutive days transformed his life. John notes starting this exercise with everyone that gave him a Christmas gift, and then expanding to coworkers, then to other people he interacted with, such as a barista that greeted him by name at his local Starbucks. From this experience, John realized that writing the thank you notes helped him focus on little things he had been taking for granted and to be more positive about the bad things in his life. After his 365-day exercise was over, he noticed that his life had changed significantly. He lost weight, his failing business was prospering, and his relationships with family and friends had improved.

5. Meditate with Gratitude

Gratitude expression and meditation are two wellness practices that can significantly increase your happiness. Combining them into one meditation experience can make your results even more significant. Instead of keeping your mind clear like you would with typical meditation, gratitude meditation involves concentrating and reflecting on being grateful for everything in your life—both the bad and the good. You can meditate on the happiness the good things in your life bring, as well as recognize the opportunities for growth the seemingly bad things in life can bring about.

6. Use a Gratitude App

There are tons of apps for mobile devices that enhance habits and rituals. These apps allow you to customize categories and then evaluate quickly whether or not you performed them at whatever interval of time you determine. I suggest the gratitude category be a question—what are you grateful for today? This compels one to reflect and name something. 

For more impact, you can fill in why you are grateful for that one thing today. Make sure to be specific! Instead of saying you’re grateful for your spouse, for example, go into detail about why you are grateful for them, citing specific personality traits, experiences, and things they have done for you in the past.

An Attitude of Gratitude

Throughout history, many cultures have regarded the experience and expression of gratitude as beneficial for individuals and society. Now, research has conclusively shown that grateful people experience more positive emotions, have greater life satisfaction, and are more hopeful about the future compared to ungrateful people. Furthermore, highly grateful people are more empathetic, forgiving, and supportive, as well as less likely to be depressed, anxious, and jealous.

Becoming more grateful is as easy as writing a letter, using an app, or taking a brief moment to say “thank you.” But its effects are unspeakably powerful. When you cultivate an attitude of gratitude, life becomes that much richer, and as Zig Ziglar said, you’ll just have that much more to be grateful for.

For more advice on patience, you can find Called to Care on Amazon.

Dr. Larry Benz, PT, DPT, OCS, MBA, MAPP, is the co-founder of Confluent Health, a network of physical therapy and related healthcare companies dedicated to delivering exceptional care, educating and developing highly effective clinicians, strengthening private practice, reducing healthcare costs, and elevating care in healthcare. A frequent lecturer at Physical Therapy programs, national conferences, and MBA schools throughout the country, Dr. Benz graduated from Bowling Green State University trained at Baylor University and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a nationally recognized award recipient for his expertise in private-practice Physical Therapy and occupational medicine. As the co-developer of Jacmel Rehabilitation, Dr. Benz and his colleagues at Confluent Health and other various organizations have built a sustainable physical rehabilitation clinic in Haiti. For more information, please visit PThelpforHaiti.org and CalledtoCarebook.com.

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