November 7, 2013

3 Good Things: How Gratitude Heals. ~ Dr. Paula Watkins

I talk a lot about gratitude: I post pictures of things I’m grateful for and I’m guilty of a fair amount of #gratitude hash-tagging befitting my enthusiasm for green smoothies and yoga.

I am one of many.

“Gratitude journals” and the like have become popular, and as with all good things, when they catch on in the mainstream, they lead to a vast array of approaches that use some watered-down methods and, honestly, a bit of new agey, first world nonsense in certain contexts as well.

But practicing gratitude is not new age nonsense.

It’s not pop-psychology, though I can see how it might look that way, and it’s not a first world public celebration of just how #awesome and privileged our lives are—though I can see that, too.

The practice of gratitude is backed by some sound science, and research in this field, that has advanced in recent years.

So what do scientists know, and what do we need to know about gratitude?

The History

The seminal paper in this field came out 10 years ago with an article titled, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life (Emmons & McCollough, 2003). The study showed that participants randomly assigned to notice and appreciate up to five things they were grateful for were happier and healthier than participants who recorded neutral events or hassles.

These findings were replicated in later studies.

In simple terms, for most of us keeping a gratitude journal enhances our mood, optimism and life satisfaction.

However, we’ve also learned that the practice of gratitude can be “overdone” and become stale.

Researchers have started paying attention to this, determining what might be the optimal dosage and level of analysis applied to a gratitude practice. All this enthusiasm has led to variations of gratitude exercises, but to simplify this discussion I’m focusing on the most common personal practice of keeping a gratitude “list” or “journal” (there are also interpersonal gratitude practices as well).

The Practice

Optimal dosage and level of analysis are related. The research suggests the use of two variations: a daily dose of “Three Good Things” and a less frequent (weekly) dose of “Gratitude”.

Here’s what they look like and how they work:

Three Good Things

This practice involves recalling and appreciating “Three Good Things” that happened within the current day.

Because we experience different sights, smells, sounds, thoughts and emotions everyday, this practice doesn’t tend to get boring. However, the content varies and it keeps us on our toes, such as noticing smaller blessings, like delicious blueberries, and larger blessings, like the return of a lost pet, during these days of our lives.


Studies have shown that gratitude journals often revolve around recurring themes (family, friends, health/life, faith) and while it’s good to reflect on our appreciation of these things, the “goodness” can be lost if we do it too often.

Research suggests the dosage of once a week—meaning you don’t need to get all existential every day.

Going Deeper

In therapy we often take these lists, and in conjunction with values work, use them to facilitate self-reflection and behavior change.

I suggest doing this practice once a month, or less.

Take a moment to notice recurring themes in your gratitude list and pick the most common for the month (let’s say you picked your partner). Then, ask yourself, “Do my actions with (my partner) reflect the extent in which I value them?”

If so, awesome—be grateful for that!

If not, ask yourself how you might tweak your behavior to reduce the dissonance between what you truly value and how you behave.

There are other ways to bespoke your gratitude practice, and I always encourage clients to experiment with different approaches to work out what fits best within their lives.

Some use technology, and prefer to record images of their “Three Good Things” on their smartphones. I’ve watched people transform their appreciation of their daily environment in this way, noticing colors, textures and patterns light. Of course, this method is a little trickier for less tangible phenomena and you might need to be creative in figuring out how to visually depict your gratitude for, let’s say, honesty.

Gratitude is commonly thought of as a positive psychology strategy, as well as a spiritual practice. In reality it is both of these things.

Fundamentally though, I conceptualize gratitude as mindfulness.


Because it forces us to pay attention.

When we have to be held accountable to our gratitude journal/practice we are required to notice our lives in new ways so that we have something to record.

Personally I practice “Three Good Things” each night before bed.

If I’m alone I simply bring them to mind and pause for a moment reflecting on and enjoying each one. If I’m with a beloved then we share them with each other.

My Gratitude Journal happens once a week, normally on Sunday evenings. I’ve been doing it for years and every now and then I look back at old journals, seeing places I used to live, feeling  wonder for sunrises that have never waned and seeing people whom have since passed on, or out of my life in other ways. I was grateful for them when we shared time together and it’s been my experience that conscious gratitude of relationships leads to more conscious relationships.

Put simply—gratitude can translate into action.

We begin to express it and ultimately that’s what all this good stuff is about—enhancing connections.

Enhancing our connections to ourselves, others and this great playground that we live in.

And for that, I am grateful.


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Assistant Editor: Laura Ashworth / Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Flickr.}

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