Today I’ll show you how to be a more grateful social worker. November is here. The month of the year we are reminded to reflect on our blessings and express thanks.
Here’s the thing:
We can feel grateful and intentionally expressing the feeling year round. If you’re not “practicing gratitude”, you are likely less healthy in many areas of your life. In today’s article, I’m going to explain what gratitude is, why it is important, and how to have more of it.
When you Google the word gratitude, this is the first definition you see:
noun: the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Philosopher Cicero referred to gratitude as the “mother of all virtues”.
Gratitude is derived from the latin word gratia meaning grace or a given gift.
Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast supports the gift notion with this reminder: Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift.
Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California Davis is considered one of the leading experts on gratitude research.
He defines it in two ways:
- Gratitude is an affirmation of goodness.
- Gratitude is the recognition that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves… We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
In M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude, she suggests:
Gratitude is the realization that we have everything we need, at least in this moment.
So to recap:
Gratitude is a gift, an attitude, an affirmation, and a realization.
Why is gratitude important?
Gratitude is important because it positively impacts our well-being in different ways.
Let’s look at a few of the healthy impacts:
- Physical Health: In one study patients with heart disease symptoms improved with regular gratitude practice.
- Emotional Health: Amy Morin, clinical social worker and best-selling author, touts the benefits of gratitude in her article. She references a study that reports gratitude helps increase empathy and reduce aggression.
- Mental Health: In another interesting study, keeping a gratitude journal was a better long-term predictor of sustaining happiness than winning the lottery.
Gratitude can also impact circuitry in the brain.
In a study at the Brain Creativity Institute, Glenn R. Fox hypothesized that brain activity would correlate with gratitude ratings.
What did the MRI scans show?
Fox and colleagues found:
When the brain feels gratitude, it activates areas responsible for feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness, economic decision-making and self-reference.
But let’s not kid ourselves:
Somedays it is really hard to feel grateful.
So what gets in our way of practicing gratitude and how we do we get better at it?
Here’s the thing:
If you want to feel more gratitude, nothing replaces intentional practice.
According to Robert Emmons, two barriers typically act as deterrents to feeling grateful:
- Lack of mindful awareness
To combat gratitude forgetfulness ask yourself some questions:
- What has someone given to me or done for me that has positively impacted my life?
- What have I given to someone?
- What troubles and difficulty have I caused?
Emmons also suggests using visual cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude.
Here’s my visual cue:
Emmons suggests countering a lack of mindful awareness in two ways:
- Engage all of your senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound) to appreciate the subtleties and miracles of life.
- Emmons suggests vowing to engage in mindful practice daily.
Internal expression of thankfulness is powerful, but so are external expressions.
Social Worker Tools of Thanks
The gold standard of external expression is:
the gratitude journal.
Most research on gratitude includes keeping a journal of some type.
Keeping a gratitude journal can be as simple as writing down things for which you are grateful.
That sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s not.
If you want to truly see a difference, do these practices. every. day.
- Set aside time to reflect, ideally either right before bed or just after waking.
- Focus on people over things (e.g. see family picture above).
- Be specific about the things you are thankful (e.g. I’m thankful for my wife’s graphic design and copy editing on my articles).
- Be consistent, but don’t over do it. Weekly journaling can be more powerful than journaling daily.
If you like paper and pen, check out: Self Journal
If you prefer digital, here is an app to try: Five Minute Journal
Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology, has extensively studied the effects of another external gratitude expression:
the gratitude letter.
So, how do you write a gratitude letter?
- Find an individual who you’ve never properly thanked.
- Describe in detail how he or she affected your life.
- Mention how often you remember their impact.
- Bonus points: then make the “delivery visit” and read the letter to your thanked person.
The positive effects of the gratitude letter (and visit) will be felt for months later.
Growing Gratitude Year Round
To quickly recap:
- Gratitude is good for us: mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
- Like most other tools and skills, getting good at gratitude takes practice.
- When we consistently and intentionally express thankfulness, whether internally or externally, we develop an attitude of gratitude.
So as you prepare for Thanksgiving (in the U.S.), it’s a great time to start intentionally practicing gratitude. We want “Giving Thanks” to become a year-round habit.
And, I want to express my gratitude to you, fellow social worker, for the work you do and the passion you have for the people we serve.