Book Club Discussion: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier

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For the second Living Upp Book Club meeting, we discussed Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and leading gratitude researcher. Over the course of the evening, we shared our personal stories related to the art of practicing gratitude. Thankfully, not everyone liked the book. I say thankfully because I love it when people are authentic and brave enough to be honest about their beliefs and feelings, but also because it’s an opportunity to practice gratitude.

In his book, Emmons presents a very scientific view of gratitude, outlining how it affects our health and well-being, and suggesting that gratitude may act as a “psychological immune system.” While he did offer a few practical tips for practicing gratitude, the book is definitely not a “how to” guide, by any means. According to Emmons, “Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others.”

#Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others - Robert Emmons Click To Tweet

Here are some of the topics we discussed as a group:

Entitlement

One idea that surfaced during our discussion was entitlement. We observed that many people expect gifts and recognition regardless of the effort they put forth, especially younger adults who were raised with the “everybody is a winner” mentality. One attendee described feeling disappointed when her efforts go unrecognized, and we admitted that we all feel that way from time to time. Ultimately, we decided that maybe we all just have to grow into the practice of gratitude. Before we can truly express gratitude for something, we have to first understand and appreciate the effort that goes into it.

Practicing Gratitude & Comparisons

We also talked about the comparisons we make when we look at the lives of others. We acknowledged that comparisons can can either make us feel more grateful or less fortunate than others, and one member reminded us of this great quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And it really is.

Negativity

Another topic we discussed was how to maintain our grateful spirit in the midst of negativity. For example, how can we avoid the temptation to complain, or focus on what isn’t going well around us, instead of responding with gratitude? One member recalled watching a beautiful sunset recently and was surprised to hear herself say, “I wish it would have been more pink,” rather than simply being grateful for it as it was. Being aware of our tendencies and habits is the first step to purposefully changing our reactions over time, and our gratitude practice. Another member shared that she’s learning to see stressful situations as gifts. Instead of grumbling about problems at work, she focuses on the fact that she has a job. And that reminded us of this popular excerpt from a 1999 edition of Family Circle Magazine to the discussion:

I am Thankful For…

…the mess to clean after a party because it means I have been surrounded by friends.
…the taxes I pay because it means that I am employed.
…the clothes that fit a little too snug because it means I have enough to eat.
…my shadow who watches me work because it means I am out in the sunshine.
…a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning and gutters that need fixing because it means that I have a home.
…the spot I find at the far end of the parking lot because it means I am capable of walking.
…all the complaining I hear about our government because it means we have freedom of speech.
…my huge heating bill because it means that I am warm.
…the lady behind me in church who sings off key because it means I can hear.
…the piles of laundry and ironing because it means my loved ones are nearby.
…the alarm that goes off in the early morning hours because it means that I’m alive.
…weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day because it means I have been productive.

Practicing gratitude often means re-framing experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise feel grateful for. But once we learn that we can shift our perspective, we have the power to influence our happiness.

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Expectations

And then there are those little things called expectations. What should we do when we catch ourselves expecting gratitude in return for something we do for someone else? Feeling irritated when a gift goes unacknowledged, being offended when someone doesn’t wave if we let them merge in front of us, feeling hurt when we don’t receive a compliment on a meal we prepared with a lot of love. All of these emotions stem from the expectation that we should get something in return for our efforts.

One member suggested that we simply expect less from others to avoid feeling let down. Another idea was to create an explanation for the behavior. For example, if someone doesn’t wave when you let them merge in front of you in traffic, try to think of some reasons why that might be: Maybe they were focusing on driving safely, maybe they were preoccupied because they spilled something, or perhaps they just forgot.

The Art of Practicing Gratitude

One thing is clear, practicing gratitude really does take practice, and one proven method for fostering more gratitude is journaling. Whether you use The Self-Care Planner*, an app, pen and paper or snap photos, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. One member shared that she makes a list of things she’s grateful for as part of her daily journaling routine. She summed it up beautifully by saying, “I give space for everything.”

If that isn’t evidence of self-love, then I don’t know what is.

A key takeaway from our discussion was that even when we have the best intentions about expressing gratitude, it can be a challenge to do it consistently, and it can be especially difficult when we’re surrounded by people who aren’t kind and appreciative. Even so, we acknowledged it just requires and intentional heart and lots of practice. And saying “thank you” might just make you happier in the long run.

Do you have other creative strategies for practicing gratitude? Please share in the comments below or on the Living Upp Facebook page.

(P.S. I’m grateful for the beautiful group of ladies who shared their evening and hearts with me!)

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