The Gratitude Challenge

Facebook memes come and go, most of them without our really noticing or remembering what was circulating the year before. Along with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that is presently circulating, another is catching on: The Gratitude Challenge. In this particular meme, people are challenged to list 5 things for which they are grateful over the course of 5 consecutive days. Although at first glance, I admit it might seem a bit Pollyannaish, there is actually some exciting research coming out that recognizes a tremendous benefit to journaling about gratitude.

As a therapist in Denver, one of my interests is teaching workshops on a relatively new field called “Positive Psychology”. To explain what positive psychology is, it’s best to start explaining what it is not.

What Positive Psychology Is Not
Positive psychology is not cheerleading. It isn’t about ignoring the fact that bad things do happen to people. It isn’t life coaching, and it isn’t the study of rainbows, unicorns, glitter, and fairydust. Positive psychology was actually started by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman. It is a twist on traditional psychology, which looks at what creates mental illness (college courses call this “Abnormal Psychology”); instead, positive psychology focuses on what contributes to a person’s mental health and well-being. You’ll also hear positive psychology referred to as the science of happiness. One technique (among many) that is used by teachers of positive psychology is the cultivation of gratitude.

Research Proves That Gratitude Works
In a recent study published by Harvard Health Publications, a study was conducted in which they asked people to participate in a study about the value of listing things for which they were grateful.

“One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.” (

Although it might seem like common sense, what is exciting is that scientists are actually recognizing the value of gratitude. It isn’t just something that is nice to have – it eases mental strain and actually improves physical health! Now, if something like writing a few sentences each week can keep the doctor away, it sure beats paying a copay and meeting a deductible!

How To Cultivate Gratitude

  • Make A List
    There are a lot of different ways to cultivate gratitude. One is to take the method that Harvard psychologists used in their study and write down four or five things for which you are grateful each week. I think this works; however, it’s possible that positive change could happen more rapidly by writing in a gratitude journal 4-5 times a week.
  • Post a Status Update
    Another method that people like to do in our digital age, is to create a gratitude list and post it on Facebook at the end of each day. I’ve done this myself on several occasions, and it works! Will people think you’re strange? Well, maybe. But there’s something magic that happens when you let someone in on your little game. Perhaps that’s why the gratitude challenge meme has taken off the way it has.
  • Write a Thank You Note
    It seems that the art of a handwritten note is slowly fading away; however, it doesn’t have to. You can take a quick moment to write a note to neighbor, a child’s teacher, or a Starbucks barista. It’s an easy exercise that will make you feel great, and the recipient, too.
  • Write a Letter to Yourself
    Don’t leave yourself out of the writing exercise! How about writing a letter to yourself? Mention three or four things that you are grateful for, but with yourself as the recipient. For example, you could acknowledge yourself for exercising, for being compassionate to a stranger, or for doing a favor for someone else. Be generous! We are our own worst critics – this is the time to brag on yourself a little. After all, nobody said you have to show it to anyone else.

Create Your Own – But Stay Outside of Your Head

The important thing to remember about gratitude is to bring the gratitude outside of your head. Sure, after a while you’ll start to be grateful for things automatically in your mind; however, there’s something about getting things out of your brain and on to paper that makes them much more real and powerful. Although it might be tempting, try to do your gratitude exercises either on paper or using the spoken word.

Getting in the habit of being grateful might take as long as 21 days to form, but it’s worth it. Your mental attitude will change, and according to research, your physical health will benefit, too – not to mention your relationships. Give it a try!

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

2727 Bryant St. #104
Denver, CO 80211

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