Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools we have available to us. It’s entirely portable: we can do it anywhere, without any equipment. It has tremendous benefits: it has been shown to increase happiness and contentment (Brown, 2010; Emmons, 2008; Peterson, 2006). A Count your Blessings exercise where you identify three blessings and reflect on why you are grateful for these things each night for a week was shown to increase happiness and decrease depression symptoms for up to 6 months after the exercise. Writing and delivering a gratitude letter to someone dramatically increased happiness, and lasted for several weeks (Toepfer, Cichy, and Peters (2011).
I’ve recommended gratitude as a tool to both build and protect optimism. I’ve also recommended gratitude as a tool to increase joy during the holidays. It’s such an effective tool. It’s also easy to fall in and out of the habit of truly practicing gratitude. It warrants bringing up again, and expanding how we can use this tool.
Some of our suffering comes from an inability to see or appreciate our own strengths, virtues and abilities; from a sense that we are not worthy or we do not belong (Brown, 2017). We are bombarded with messages of what we lack. To start to change things, we develop a gratitude practice; but in starting this practice, we tend to look outward. We look for external reasons (other people and circumstances) as our sources of gratitude.
What would happen if, now and then, we looked inward for sources of gratitude? If we were grateful for our appearance, what our bodies are capable of, the strengths and abilities we bring to the table? We might have the grace to make space for our imperfections. We might have more confidence to handle a tough situation.
Take time, right now, to make a list. What about YOU are you grateful for? Think about strengths, abilities, virtues, and skills. Think in positive terms. Instead of listing things like “I’m grateful that my arms aren’t broken,” try saying something more along the lines of “I’m grateful that I have functionality of my arms” or “I’m grateful my arms are capable of helping me complete my activities of daily living.”
This can be a difficult exercise; it tends to be much easier to make a list of things you would like to change about yourself. We aren’t really conditioned to talk about our strengths, so it can be really helpful to take the VIA survey of Character Strengths. It’s a free survey that measures behaviors you engage in that demonstrate your strengths. You can take the survey here.
The 24 character strengths measured by the VIA Survey are universally admired traits, it’s easy to think of examples of people that display these strengths, and tend to be innate (they can begin to display at an early age, without being taught) (Peterson, 2006). This survey ranks your behaviors and tells you your top five strengths.
In tough situations, we leverage our strengths. I like using the VIA character strengths to give language to the strengths I tend to rely on in difficult situations. It’s also helpful when it’s hard to list your strengths; this survey tells you your top five strengths.
Once you have your list of strengths, capabilities and virtues, you can leverage these as blessings or sources of gratitude. This is your path to fight scarcity and feel abundance.
As an exercise in gratitude, challenge yourself to identify multiple sources of gratitude when you are counting your blessings. Identify another person, identify an event or circumstance, and identify a strength, quality or skill you possess as three separate sources of gratitude. As always, take a moment to reflect on that blessing, and why you’re grateful or what it enables you to do.
Here is a free printable worksheet to help kick start your gratitude practice.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. New York: Random House.
Emmons, R. (2008). Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Mariner Books.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Toepfer, S. & Walker, K. (2009). Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing.. Journal of Writing Research. 1. 181-198.