Accentuate the Positive!

Reprinted from PN April 2011

The simple act of gratitude, if practiced daily, can produce numerous positive health and emotional benefits. It's an important part of well-being, and psychology has lent it scientific credence.

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Imagine being offered more hours of sleep, increased motivation to exercise, higher levels of optimism, fewer reports of depression and stress, more progress toward personal goals, and fewer physical symptoms such as pain—all for the price of as little as 10–15 minutes each day. Too good to be true?

Not so, say a growing number of professionals and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, which focuses on positive behaviors rather than emotional problems. The results of numerous studies are in and point to one conclusion, say Positive Psychology gurus across the country: The simple act of gratitude, if practiced daily, can produce numerous positive health and emotional benefits.

Religion and philosophers have long praised the virtue and benefits of gratitude, but now psychology has lent it scientific credence. In several control group studies involving subjects as diverse as college students, heart attack survivors, people dealing with postpolio syndrome, middle school students, and 9/11 survivors, results all point to the conclusion that the regular practice of gratitude produces numerous positive health and emotional benefits.

Researchers find the simple act of gratitude, when regularly practiced, makes a significant improvement in people’s lives because it is an important part of well-being. While depressed people focus on the negatives of themselves, the world, and the future, optimistic and grateful people focus on the good and positive, which helps them attain greater well-being in their lives.

Gratitude is not about positive thinking or taking the attitude that “things could be worse” but rather about recognizing the good and the positives of our lives in the here and now. It’s expressing thanks and appreciation for things as mundane as a flower, a hot cup of coffee, good conversation, a warm sweater, a good laugh, or a reliable friend.

Remember Three Things

More to the point, researchers have found the simple act of keeping a daily “Gratitude Journal” and recording several things you were grateful for that day for a few weeks can produce positive effects in happiness, optimism, and health for as long as six months. Similar results were found for people subscribing to the regular practice “Three Good Things,” which requires people to record three good things that happened in their lives each day and why they happened.

Each of these practices helps people focus on the positives in their lives in order to be able to want what they already have and gain more appreciation for the good around them.

Try practicing the following Gratitude Steps. What can you lose, except pessimism, lack of sleep, health complaints—and more?

(1) Identify nongrateful thinking by dismissing the urge to label your circumstances as too difficult, too unfair, or simply not enough. Things can always be worse and, in fact, often have been worse.

(2) Generate and formulate gratitude-supporting thoughts by being open to gratitude, actively looking for things to be grateful for, and imagining not having certain conveniences, such as warm clothes, a roof, or even that good chair. Imagine living in a third-world country and having to rely on a 30-year-old, 60-pound chrome wheelchair.

(3) Substitute grateful thoughts for ungrateful ones by identifying the good in your life—friends, transportation, family, e-mail—no matter how small. Keep in mind such simple conveniences as warm clothes, running water, indoor plumbing, and living in a free and compassionate country.

(4) Recognize gratitude when it comes by regularly practicing steps one through three and always yielding to the urge to say “Thank you.”

How to Practice

Increase gratitude in your life by:

- Paying attention to good things, large and small, rather than the more obvious bad things

- Paying attention to the negative events and adversity that are avoided

- Exercising perspective and comparisons and appreciating that circumstances can be worse and often were worse in the past (Awareness of past adversity builds gratitude. Focusing on positives of change makes adjustment easier and faster.)

- Establishing regular times to focus on gratitude (Gratitude is easily enhanced by keeping a daily gratitude journal or doing the Three Good Things exercise.)

- Exercising gratitude for what

you still have and can gain, finding positive aspects of a situation, and focusing on potential opportunities (These all lead to better psychological and physical health.)

- Being open to people when they point out the good in your life and make it visible to you

- Focusing on the positives each day—the smile from a total stranger, the joke a friend told us, an encouraging word or unexpected phone call, the helping hand (This is a proven way to enhance happiness and elevate mood and disposition. Recognizing and appreciating those positives can be difficult; that’s why you’ll need to practice. As people become better at focusing on the good in their lives, they usually become more grateful for what they have and more hopeful about the future.)

We all want to be healthier, happier, and more optimistic about the future. Exercising gratitude can increase your chances of being all those things and more. Because gratitude is contagious, we often are quick to remember the unexpected acts of kindness or generosity from others—the smile from a stranger, the offer of help, support of friends in times of need. Why not pay it forward and be the stranger others remember?  


Preparation of this article was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). The opinions here are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education. For more information about this and other research projects at Craig Hospital, contact Susan Charlifue, PhD, 303-789-8306 /


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