Like many people, I think of the new year as a time to reset, recharge, and recreate my life. This year I’m thinking beyond my usual resolutions to exercise more, go to bed earlier, and eat less sugar. Those are always on my list, but I’ve added a new one: spend more time in a state of gratitude.
Gratitude, it turns out, is highly correlated with well-being and life satisfaction.
And the NIH cites extensive research to back up the link between gratitude and a host of positive outcomes. In one study, three groups of students were asked to keep a journal regularly. The first group was asked to journal about negative events or hassles, a second group wrote about things or people they were grateful for, and a third group wrote about the happenings of the week, whether good or bad.
Guess which group scored higher in well-being and life satisfaction? You guessed it—the group that wrote about the things they were grateful for.
Other studies show a positive correlation between expressions of gratitude and better sleep, increased patience, elevated happiness, more satisfaction in relationships, and better self-care as evidenced by more wholesome choices in diet, exercise and lifestyle.
Why is this true? For one thing, research has shown that positive thoughts and feelings have a nourishing and supportive effect on our minds and bodies, while negative thoughts and feelings do the opposite.
Along these lines, the great Sufi poet Hafiz once said, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” In other words, what we pay attention to becomes the reality we experience. Like bubbles rising in water, our feelings manifest into thoughts, then words, then burst on the surface to become our outer reality.
As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, often phrased it, “What you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.” Which is why the students in the gratitude studies who wrote about their problems reported less well-being and satisfaction than the students who wrote about the things that made them feel gratitude.
So it seems that taking steps to cultivate gratitude in your life—such as keeping a gratitude journal—can help us direct our thoughts toward gratitude and appreciation. But is there a way to experience gratitude in a more permanent way?
Cultivating Gratitude as a Natural State
When my husband and I were leading a student trip to Italy a while back, we were surprised that when the students boarded a private boat to float down the magnificent Grand Canal in Venice, they spent their time talking about the other beautiful places they had seen in their lives. At first we were slightly offended, as we felt they were missing out on the beauty right before their eyes. But later we realized that when people are in a happy state of mind, they’ll naturally talk about peak experiences and the wonderful things that they are grateful for in their lives.
Certainly it’s easy to feel happy or be in a state of gratitude when you’re visiting one of the world’s most beautiful places. But when stress or adversity strikes, it becomes harder to hold onto our feelings of gratitude. In fact, it can become a strain.
The question, then, is how to find a way to create a permanent state of gratitude, a state that doesn’t disappear with the changing circumstances of life.
That state of mind is created spontaneously through meditation. When we practice the Transcendental Meditation technique, we enjoy a silent inner oasis of peace. In this balanced state, we can experience our natural state of equilibrium. Thousands of people report this result—in fact, even from the very first experience of Transcendental Meditation, many people will say, “I feel more at peace than I have in a long time.” Or “I feel like I’m on a permanent vacation.”
Science confirms these personal experiences, by the way. Research shows that during TM the body settles to state of deep rest and the brain activity is found to become more orderly and coherent, which has been called a state of restful alertness.
Maharishi once said, “People want so much from the outer and yet are willing to settle for so little on the inner, and yet everything on the outer depends on the inner.” When your consciousness is even, settled, rock-like in stability, then it is as if you have more choices when it comes to directing your attention. You can more easily choose what is nourishing and ignore what is non-nourishing.
Gratitude is Our Natural State
In fact, the direct result of a serene, stress-free mind as experienced in meditation is to experience more appreciation, more gratitude, more joy while going about your daily activities. People often find that the same life circumstances no longer bring them stress, or now that they are thinking clearer, they can change their circumstances for the better. They report higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction.
This is evidenced in scientific research too—people who practice Transcendental Meditation are shown to experience significantly less stress and anxiety, greater harmony in relationships, and more success in the workplace.
And it’s not the kind of gratitude that is artificial, that you have to contrive to create. Rather, it’s spontaneous, arising from your own natural state. This is a key point—that your essential nature is one of spontaneous appreciation. Gratitude or appreciation is not something you have to add on to your experience: it’s who you really are. So that’s why gratitude it’s a spontaneous result of practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique.
What TM does is remove the clouds and allow the sun of our essential self to shine, so we can appreciate the beauty that is all around us. To be clear about this point, TM doesn’t create the sun, it merely removes the clouds that keep us from enjoying it. In other words, meditation is a process whereby the stress and strain in the physiology are removed. Then we can experience our natural state, which is one of gratitude, appreciation, happiness, flow, love, joy, friendship, and affection in our relationships.
When stresses are removed through regular meditation, and you’re spontaneously experiencing more happiness your life, you don’t have to think about gratitude, you don’t have to manipulate it—all you have to do is enjoy it. You’ll naturally start to feel more gratitude as a spontaneous, natural, long-term reality.
Five Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
There are many ways to practice gratitude. Here are some ideas I like best.
- Practice Transcendental Meditation to create a natural state of gratitude.
- Write a gratitude letter. This could be about your life in general or could be directed to a particular person. You don’t have to send the letter—although he or she would probably feel grateful to hear what you have to say!
- Keep a gratitude jar. Whenever something nice happens, write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the jar. If you ever feel blue, reading the items in your gratitude jar can help shift your attention to the good things in your life.
- Be liberal in your compliments to others instead of complaining, especially when they’re not present to defend themselves. If you find yourself idly thinking ill of someone, make a list of the things you appreciate about that person. That can help you gain perspective.
- Avoid Internet sites, movies, or TV shows that bring you down. Choose the ones that make your heart swell with love and happiness.
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.