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The Science of Gratitude & Cultivating Gratefulness!

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November 24, 2021
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Originally published in November 2019, this blog has been revised and expanded to include additional resources and information.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. In this episode of the Everything Life Coaching Podcast, we're talking about the benefits of a regular gratitude practice. Subscribe to get all our episodes!

The Science of Gratitude

How often do you feel buried in the daily grind of tasks and to-do's? Even the holiday season, a time that's theoretically about relationships and celebrating what we’re grateful for, has become for many of us a frantic race to the finish line.

The demands of modern life can feel like a marathon with no end point. And as we paddle to keep our heads above water, it can be easy to forget what’s working in our lives, including our own strengths and wisdom. 

"Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance." - Eckhart Tolle

Appreciation and gratitude can play a vital role in returning us back to what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. But how often do we pause to celebrate our successes, or savor small moments of beauty or accomplishment?

When you're feeling The Overwhelm creeping in, an intentional gratitude practice can help ground and center you. Let's take a look at the science behind how this works, along with some simple strategies you can begin to implement today.

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships." from Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier, Harvard Business Review August 2021

External Aspects of Gratitude

Your capacity to feel grateful is influenced by the people around you

Social contagion theory tells us that we are highly likely to adopt the habits and attitudes of the people we spend the most time with. If you're hanging out with optimists, you'll feel more optimistic. But if your inner circle is caught up in a spin cycle of negativity, you're more likely to think and feel that way too.

This influence goes both ways. When you practice gratitude, it doesn't just benefit you. It can also inspire the people around you to cultivate a similar mindset. This becomes a reinforcing feedback loop. Together, you're noticing and giving your attention to what's working... rather than what isn't.

Get Started With A Gratitude Bomb

A fun and easy way to get the juices flowing is to deliver "gratitude bombs" to the people in your life. This can be done in so many ways - via email, a social media post, DMs, text, or hand-written cards or letters. The idea here is simply to vocalize to the people in your life why you’re grateful for them.

Get specific about what you’re grateful for! It is one thing to say “I appreciate our friendship,” and another to explore why. Putting additional thought into what you're grateful for and why makes the process more meaningful for you both. In this example, instead of simply telling a friend you’re grateful for their friendship, how might you go even deeper?

  • What is it about them as a person that you’re grateful for?
  • Why are you thankful for them?
  • Why do you love to celebrate the experiences you’ve had together?

Think broadly on this one! Gratitude bombs are meaningful in both personal AND professional relationships. By telling others what you're grateful for about their presence and contributions, you're not just cultivating your own sense of gratitude. You're making someone else feel seen and appreciated in the process.

A side benefit of gratitude bombing is that you're also introducing the practice of gratitude to others. This, in turn, can create ripples of kindness and appreciation that extend far beyond your own circles.

Internal Aspects of Gratitude

Self-Appreciation

In addition to expressing gratitude externally, you can also experience big benefits from cultivating it on the inside. But don’t just take our word for it! Positive psychology researchers Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami conducted a study on this practice in 2003. 

Here’s what they found after inviting study participants to write a few sentences of reflection each week for 10 weeks. The people who were asked to note what they were grateful for each week reported feeling more optimistic and better about their lives. Not only that, this group also reported exercising more and having fewer doctor’s visits than the group that was instructed to write about what was troubling them.

Want to give it a try? Take time on a regular basis to note and appreciate your personal strengths. A simple and effective way to do this is to end each week with a gratitude practice. Make note of your wins, successes and personal accomplishments - big or small. Over time, this practice can help you to notice and savor “what’s working” in your everyday experiences. Finding deeper satisfaction in daily life in turn helps build momentum toward achieving your larger goals, dreams and aspirations.

Want even more tools for cultivating internal appreciation? Tune into John and Noelle's discussion Naikan Therapy: How to Apply the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection in Coaching.

Effects of Practicing Gratitude

The benefits of practicing gratitude have been well researched, and include “greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making.” (How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain, Greater Good Magazine 2017) Another impact that we want to highlight is that cultivating gratitude can have a direct physical effect on the body. As just one example, the positive emotions generated from appreciation are helpful in repairing cardiovascular damage caused by stress.

Reflecting upon what we’re thankful for is a simple practice that we can do anywhere, anytime. And if you’re a coach who’d like to incorporate some of these practices into your work with clients, check out: Want to Apply Positive Psychology to Your Life Coaching Practice? Here's How! 

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