Lessons from Failbook: The Benefits of Gratitude

“Failbook” is a site that allows you to anonymously submit tragic and funny Facebook and Twitter status updates of your “friends”, many of which show the uglier side of Homo sapiens.

One page on this site that stands out is called “Spoiled brats who didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas”. Some of the status updates include –

“No iPhone. I hate my dad”

“Was I the only person who didn’t get an iPad? I mean I got a car but that’s a different story all together :/”

“I’m so jealous of everyone with the white iPhone and I have this ugly black one”

These people surely can’t be serious?

After all, nearly half the worlds’ population live on less than $2.50 a day, 1.1 billion people in developing countries don’t have access to water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

And you complain about your ugly black iPhone?

Stop. You’re hurting my brain.

Look, I realise that at some level we can all be like these spoilt brats. It’s very easy to get caught up in the frenetic pace of modern life, lose perspective and forget how lucky we are.

And research shows we pay a price for this. It has been found that people who lack an outlook of gratitude are worse off physically and psychologically than others. But before I launch into the research in this area, it makes sense to look at what ‘gratitude’ actually is.

Prominent researcher Robert Emmons defines gratitude as –

“a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life”.

It is a sense of thankfulness and joy in response to everyday events, personal attributes and the people we encounter. In other words, it’s about counting your blessings.

In one experiment that examined the practice of gratitude, participants who wrote down 5 things they were grateful for each week engaged in exercise more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms (i.e. less headaches, acne and coughing) and felt better about their lives than those who wrote down their hassles or neutral life events instead.

Another similar experiment with young adults found that the participants who practiced being grateful showed higher levels of positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy than those who wrote down their hassles or the ways in which they were better off than others.

Further studies have also found that grateful people experience greater life satisfaction, vitality as well lower levels of depression and stress than others. These studies illustrate that if you want to feel amazingly good you may not need to buy lots of stuff, eat chocolate and take anti-depressants. Phew!

It also turns out that expressing gratitude can save you money. If you’re grateful for what you have in your life you’ll be less likely to care about acquiring material possessions such as iPads or iPhones, less envious of wealthy people and more willing to share your stuff.

So how does gratitude work? How does it make us happier and more balanced?

There are several reasons and I’ll touch on a few of them. Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book ‘The How of Happiness’ states –

“grateful thinking promotes the savouring of positive life experiences. By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances”

In addition, expressing gratitude helps to increase an individuals self worth and self esteem, cope with stress, and strengthens your relationships with others.

The research literature clearly demonstrates that if you want to boost your happiness levels then nurturing an attitude of gratitude may be the way to go.

All that you need to do is take a few moments to reflect each day on aspects of your life that you’re grateful for. Here’s one way you can do it –

1. Take a notebook and pen.

2. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted and write down 3-5 things that you’re grateful for. This could be anything from the mundane everyday event (e.g. the floor is vacuumed) to something you saw that was beautiful (e.g. a full moon).

If nothing immediately comes to mind, try answering the following questions –

1. What are you good at?
2. What do you like about where you live?
3. What goals have you achieved this year?
4. What opportunities do you have available to you?
5. Who has contributed or touched your life in some way?

You may also want to try using other gratitude exercises to avoid the practice of gratitude becoming a tiresome chore. Perhaps you may find that you get bored of writing a list of 5 things. If this is the case, you can just sit and think about the things you are grateful for. Alternatively, you may want to phone a friend or write them a letter to express your gratitude directly to them.

Gratitude levels can also be enhanced by developing a good awareness of previous experiences of deprivation or difficult times. As Peterson and Seligman state in their book “Character Strengths and Virtues” –

“one greatly appreciates a mild spring after a harsh winter, a gourmet meal following a fast…there is an old saying that blessings are not known until they are lost”.

The most important thing is that you engage in the practice of expressing gratitude regularly. It doesn’t really matter when you do it, just as long as you do it. When it becomes a chore, that’s when you’ll know that it’s time to vary some of your practice (e.g. the activity, the time and/or place you do it).