The year of living thankfully

Story highlights

  • To be better about gratefulness, find easy ways to count blessings more often
  • There are a number of mental and physical health benefits correlated with being a thankful person

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)Logically speaking, we should be in a perpetual state of gratitude. Most people who read this column, even if they aren't fully aware, have a long list of blessings to count (most of the time, anyway).

Family. Friends. Love. Health. Freedom from war and natural disaster. Imagination. Community. A roof over our heads. Common decency. Hope. Opportunity. Memories. Financial stability. Favorite places. Days off work. Good weather. The golden age of television. Books. Music. Ice cream. Weekends. A friendly exchange. Something good that happened today. Something bad that didn't happen today. A good cup of coffee.
    You may not have everything you want or even need, but that probably leaves buckets -- nay, container ships -- full of tangible and conceptual items for which to be grateful. Things can always be better, but they can always be worse. It often depends on how you look at that proverbial glass of water.
    To get in better touch with gratefulness, all you have to do is find easy ways to count blessings more often than, say, over an annual turkey dinner. Keep them boiling on the front burner of your mind, and you increase your appreciation of life.
    What keeps us from longer and more frequent visits to a grateful (and graceful) mental place is that we think about other things. In fact, we are wired to. Our primitive brains smartly evolved the capacity to quickly sense potential threats, to keep us safe. But in a post-saber-toothed-tiger era, we get easily annoyed, worried and distracted by a lot of extraneous noise.
    Instead, we need more focus on the positive, And you don't have to set the bar high. Allow yourself to be thankful for the small, mundane things that give you joy and meaning, as well as the big ones. And don't try to gather heaps of blessings to count; a handful each day should do it.
    In his play "Two Trains Running," August Wilson wrote, "You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad 'cause it's empty. You can't go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That's all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it's half-full."
    Here are some low-threshold habits and traditions to institute that will fill that little cup right up. And a number of reasons you should bother to do so.

    Thanks to be healthy

    The most obvious reason to boost your gratitude is that it's closely tied to increased feelings of happiness. The studies backing that up are not surprising. What's remarkable is that scientists who have located thoughts of gratitude in the brain found that not only do they produce feelings of pleasure, they stimulate areas regulating stress.
    This makes intuitive sense. Be more aware of what you feel is good in your life, and you will feel good. Also, if you're sufficiently grateful, you're less likely to compare yourself to others, which is often the enemy of happiness.
    Resilience, including the ability to cope with stress and trauma, is another trait correlated with gratitude. Studies have showed that counting blessings was a factor in managing post-traumatic stress for Vietnam War veterans and an effective coping strategy for many after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other research shows that the more grateful you are, the more you are likely to exhibit patience and self-control. It can even be good for marriages and relationships: Couples good at exhibiting thankfulness tend to be "more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time." Our best selves, it seems, are our most grateful selves.
    Studies have showed that gratitude can indirectly influence physical health, as well. Those who have "dispositional gratitude" -- defined by one study as "part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world" -- are more likely to report good physical health, a propensity for healthy activities and willingness to seek help for health concerns.
    In another study, New York teenagers who rated as the most grateful in their class -- defined by "having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives" -- were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The benefits of having more gratitude also correlated with benefits to the heart among patients who had experienced heart failure.
    Being grateful can even get you a better night's sleep. According to one study involving college students who instituted various methods for increasing gratitude, such as a gratitude journal, they worried less at bedtime and slept longer and better. In another study, adults in the UK (40% of whom had sleep disorders), reported that thinking about what they are grateful for at night led to falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer.
    Convinced? Let's get to the fun part.

    How to up your GQ (gratefulness quotient)

    I'm currently conducting two completely unscientific thankfullness-boosting experiments. For nearly two years, I've been keeping a gratitude journal. And for the last five years or so, my family has engaged in a dinnertime ritual called "Roses, Thorns & Buds" that surfaces the same details.
    A lot has been written about these and other thankfulness experiments, and it should be noted that there are no rules or even standards that govern them. We're in very, very soft science territory here. But reliable research does show that whatever you do to increase gratitude pays off, so it's worth it to find what is easy, enjoyable and effective for you.
    A gratitude journal need not be any more complicated than keeping a notebook by your bed and starting a nightly habit of jotting down who and what you were grateful for that day. Journaling was the standard method for some of the studies cited above, so this is a simple but effective option.
    I'm coming up on two years of trying this one, and I added a layer you may want to consider. After one year, I took the time to total up all the mentions. My wife and children were, predictably, at the top, reminding me not to take them for granted. But I was surprised to see that co-workers, neighbors and a city park all ranked highly. It was useful for me to review in that way, because when I see those people, I have this added layer of positive feeling about them at the forefront of my mind. It's hard to get annoyed by someone when you think, "I'm so often grateful for that person."
    It was fun to play with the data, too. By category, "family" was the clear winner (1,011 instances) for me, followed by "places" (269 instances, with coffee shops being the biggest sub-category), "friends" (259), CNN "co-workers" (197) and "experiences" (133). Also, "Star Wars" (11) beat both beer (10) and books (8). It will be interesting to compare second-year totals against these. All of it is getting me closer to understanding and remembering what I'm most grateful for.
    Roses, Thorns & Buds (or RTB, among its devotees) has been part of so many family dinners since my older daughter was 4 years old that I've forgotten where we first heard about it. It's quite simple: Everyone at the table takes turns sharing "roses," which are something positive and happy-making about their day; "thorns," which are the opposite of that; and "buds" for something we're looking forward to and we anticipate will be a rose. Sometimes, the family meal and sharing these things itself is a rose.
    Granted, the "thorn" doesn't necessarily increase gratitude -- though it's still useful from a family discussion, empathy and problem-solving perspective. And if you can fix a problem, a rose may grow in that thorn's place.
    Here are our unscientific findings: Each time, we find that we have many roses and buds and usually only one thorn to share.
    Friends have told us about effective variations on this technique, so one size doesn't fit all. If the metaphor is too flowery for you, pick another. Home runs, strikeouts and on deck? The important thing is to connect to the thankfulness in this way, whether you do it most evenings or on the occasional weekend. It's also an easy way for kids to get into a thankfulness habit themselves.
    Happiness jars, a strategy popularized by "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert, is something of a hybrid of gratitude journal and RTB. The idea is to write down on a slip of paper the happiest moment of the day and drop it in a jar. The advantage of doing it this way is that in moments of unhappiness, you can reach into the jar and be reminded of those moments, perhaps becoming grateful for them anew. Gilbert was struck by how many of her fans shared photos of their decorated happiness jars (see Pinterest if you need inspiration) and by how her happiest moments are "generally really common and quiet and unremarkable."
    And there are other experiments to try. You could set alarms/reminders on your phone to pause and think of something you are grateful for at different times of the day: Mornings help set the tone of the day, and reflecting while at work can be particularly useful. You can then record them on a gratitude journaling app.
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    Or you could just focus on the simple act of saying thank you, and meaning it, more frequently. Writing letters of thanks (or emails if you want to be faster and more frequent) to those for whom you are grateful is worth doing with some regularity. You can also express gratitude with gifts, flowers and favors. Or simply make of list of all the things we take for granted but would be so unhappy to lose, such as job security, health, seeing loved ones. Review that list every week or so.
    Whatever way you start infusing your life with more moments of gratitude, in the short and long term, you will be grateful that you did.