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The Psychological Benefits of Gratitude

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Caryn Carlson talks about how to incorporate thankfulness into your daily routine.

By Madison Matous

November is a time when gratitude is on everyone’s mind as we reflect on our priorities and those we love most. But taking time to give thanks is not just reserved for the holiday season. Caryn Carlson, a positive-psychology professor at the University of Texas, believes giving thanks daily is an important aspect of overall health.

Carlson started her career at UT in 1989 as an assistant professor studying attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children. But in the late 1990s, a new perspective emerged in the psychology community, developed by Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman proposed that by using tools already in place to study mental illness, it was possible to study how people can live more fulfilling and productive lives.

Carlson was immediately intrigued and created a new course within the psychology department, positive psychology and the good life, in which students discuss the scientific basis of well-being and the benefits of gratitude.

“It’s the most gratifying teaching I have ever done,” Carlson says.

In her course, students start by writing a gratitude letter to someone they feel has positively impacted their life, then present their letters in front of the class. During Carlson’s class, students also keep a daily gratitude journal, which she believes helps them realize how many things they have to be thankful for.

“They realize that they’re grateful just to be walking through campus and seeing beautiful buildings because they know they’re going to be writing about these at the end of the day,” Carlson says. “They start looking around and think about and noticing everyday occurrences that they are grateful for.”

In addition to the benefits Carlson sees in her own students, others have begun to see the positive effects of gratitude through their own psychological studies. Recently, Michael Mullarkey, a graduate student of Carlson’s, conducted a study about gratitude writing. He found the participants showed increased well-being and decreased symptoms of depression, even three months after the study had ended, compared with the control group.

Additionally, the University of Texas’ Counseling and Mental Health Center recently approached Carlson about putting together a gratefulness journal for incoming freshmen. These journals would help students with their transition into college life, an initiative Carlson says she is excited about.

Simple Ways to Be More Grateful

  • Keep a gratitude journal. In this journal, reflect on both positive and negative events and their outcomes. By thinking about events that aren’t solely positive—what Carlson refers to as “grateful processing”—the writer will have a more positive attitude about negative events.
  • Write down three things you are grateful for before bed. These can be small, simple statements about anything from an unexpected kind gesture from a stranger to having clean drinking water. Studies show taking time to be grateful before bed can improve overall sleep quality.
  • Write a gratitude letter. Writing a gratitude letter can be just as meaningful for the person writing the letter as it is for the person receiving the letter. While Carlson’s students hope the person who receives the letter is moved, they also experience positive feelings from writing the letter.

 

 

For more ideas about how to incorporate gratefulness into everyday life, Carlson recommends reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

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