Leap of faith: practise gratitude and you will feel it – and be happier. Photo: Getty Images
When Jen Saunders, 27, moved countries, lost her job and came down with a bad case of the flu, she felt she'd hit rock bottom. "I was so sick I could barely move and I was so miserable I didn't want to." She spent weeks lying in bed or on the couch "feeling sorry for myself and blaming the world" for her problems. "I was shattered and felt like a complete failure," she says.
But one night Jen had a light-bulb moment. "I realised that nothing was going to change if all I did was sit around drenched in self-pity. I figured that if I could make myself so unhappy, maybe I could make myself happy, too."
Having "seen enough episodes of Oprah to know that gratitude is a good way to start", her first step was to heed that advice. "I started by writing gratitude and self-love reminders like, 'Give thanks' and 'You are loved' on Post-it notes, and sticking them up all over the apartment."
She noticed a change immediately. "My mood started lifting, and within a couple of weeks I began waking up feeling excited about everything."
While the concept of gratitude being good for us is nothing new, a recent study shows that feeling grateful can also make us more satisfied with life. The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in March this year, showed that materialistic people were more likely than non-materialistic people to be dissatisfied with life. The researchers say this is because instead of being grateful for what they already have, materialistic people tend to focus on the next thing they want, believing that once they obtain that, they'll be happier.
But as the study's co-author James Roberts explains, "As we amass more possessions we don't get any happier – we simply raise our reference point."
Victorian-based psychologist Damien Adler from Mind Life Clinic agrees. "Unfortunately, while getting new things is always fun, it doesn't lead to a lasting sense of satisfaction," he says. "We soon end up taking our new toy for granted and start focusing on the next thing we think we need to feel happy. This can lead to an endless cycle of pursuit and dissatisfaction."
The solution, he says, is practising gratitude. By shifting your focus from always wanting to appreciating what you already have, he says you can "reduce stress and improve your overall physical and psychological health".
To practise gratitude, Adler suggests writing a "big list" of everything you have to be thankful for. "First, we need to appreciate that to live in a first-world country – with access to food, housing and security – makes us incredibly lucky." Then he suggests appreciating the "little things", like a good cup of coffee or a great book.
Adler recommends reviewing the list daily, and setting a challenge to add three new things each day. He says adding more becomes easier with practice. "The more we appreciate how lucky we are to have what we have right now, the better we become at noticing the small positives we would otherwise take for granted and ignore."
If you're not into writing lists, Sydney-based confidence coach Lisa Phillips recommends one-minute "appreciation sessions". For one minute a day, she advises sitting down and appreciating both yourself and the environment around you. "Doing this regularly helps to increase positive feelings," she says.
Regardless of how you do it, both experts agree the more you practise gratitude the more you'll feel grateful, and the happier you'll be. Which is what Jen discovered. She has since returned to Australia, runs her own business and feels "very blessed". She attributes these changes to embracing gratitude. "Gratitude helped me see life differently and kick-started my journey to a happy, successful life," she says.