Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


A Practice of Gratitude

As I’ve written before, gratitude is one of the healthiest approaches to life. I want to continue that theme a little longer and tell you about some research that has been done on gratitude and its positive effects. This is an area that has some of the best demonstrated effects in the realm of positive psychology.

The Gratitude Exercise

But let’s begin with the end. Here’s a simple practice that shouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so a day to complete that has scientifically been shown to improve the quality of life for those who do it.

The practice is gratitude and the mechanism is simple. At the end of the day, write down three things you witnessed or experienced or otherwise had in you life that you appreciate and are grateful for. Then write down why you think it happened.

That’s it.

What the Research Shows

It’s actually been shown that this is more effective at the end of the day than in the morning and that three items worked better than ten (a great example of less being more).

That’s not to say I don’t like to begin my day with appreciation – for a good cup of coffee, if nothing else.

In multiple studies, that simple exercise has been shown to increase contentment and decrease symptoms of depression. One researcher (Chris Peterson) asked people to do this for one week and was able to measure an improvement in that little time.

More interesting, when he did a follow up six months later, he found that sixty percent of the participants had continued the practice on their own.

One issue some people have when they first try this is that they have difficulty identifying three good things. It’s not from the lack of things to be grateful for. Rather, they’ve gotten out of practice. It’s from a tendency to, how to put this gently… take things for granted.

Learning to See What's Really There

I took a drawing class my last year in college. I had all the science stuff I needed done and wanted to do something completely different. As I amply demonstrated, I had no innate skill for drawing, but I loved the class.

The biggest thing I discovered was that the real skill of drawing isn’t in technique. It’s not how you apply pencil or charcoal to paper. An artist does have good technical ability, but their most important skill is the ability to observe intensely, to look at the world clearly, to see what’s really there.

A beginner looking at a plate on a table knows intellectually that the plate is a circle. That knowledge blocks them from really looking closely. What they see when they look at it from any angle other than straight down is more of an ellipse, yet when they put pen to paper, they’ll try to draw it as a circle based on what they “know,” not what they see.

It takes quite a lot of practice to get to the point of seeing what’s really there. Once you do see it, conveying it to the paper is relatively easy.

In the same way, there’s a small learning curve to notice the grace notes in life. The good stuff is there, we just haven’t developed the habit of noticing it.

As I mentioned in my last note, we don’t have to work on noticing the negative stuff – that will grab our attention.

Once we start looking for the positive, it becomes progressively easier to recognize it.

Notice that I’m not saying to make something up or to but a positive spin on something that appears undesirable at first flush. There is nothing unrealistic about this gratitude practice.

Rather, it represents a return to a more rational, realistic evaluation of their life and circumstances. It’s taking the time to notice clearly what’s already there.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

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