Giving Thanks: Three Positive Psychology Strategies to Foster Emotional Wellbeing

By Daniel Volk, MA

When is the last time you stopped to deliberately think about what is going well in your life?

If you can’t remember, you are not alone. We are so often caught up in who we ought to be, where we ought to be, and how things ought to be, that we forget or feel unable to live life in the present and to see the many things that are going well for us now.

Over the past two decades the field of positive psychology has helped to expand perspectives on mental health and human suffering. This body of work has taught us that taking deliberate steps to recognize and welcome the positives in life can make a big difference for emotional wellness.

Yes, human beings are complex and we have a range of feelings including suffering. But intentionally focusing on the positives can help us to remain balanced, expand our awareness, and be happy.

Along these lines, here are three simple and powerful ways to increase our gratitude and psychological well-being:

1) Make a Gratitude Lists

This exercise, sometimes referred to as “counting your blessings”, involves keeping a brief daily journal to record specific things that you are thankful for. This exercise can be done once per night as individuals reflect on their day. Focal points for gratitude can be any experience, moment, or person, that one feels grateful for that day. It can be as simple as a less traffic-filled commute, a particularly tasty lunch, or appreciating a flower, or a more significant aspect of life like the ability to walk or breathe.

2) Expressing Gratitude

Often we have thoughts and feelings about how thankful we are to another individual, but we do not share this positivity. In this exercise individuals go out of their way to say thanks to someone they are grateful to. This might involve writing a thank you letter, bringing a small gift, or simply expressing to someone verbally and in person how much you appreciate them. Targets for this exercise may be individuals who have had some positive impact on your life either recently (e.g., such as co-workers, friends, or family members) or in the distant past (e.g., teachers, mentors, coaches).

3) Create Gratitude Jars (Real or Virtual)

A gratitude jar is just what it sounds like: It’s a container to keep memos to express gratitude. In this digital age, some individuals create gratitude boards on Instragram or the like, with quick excerpts expressing their thanks for the blessings in life. Whether real or virtual, gratitude jars are very helpful because they create a (positive) structural environmental influence that serves as a visual cue to channel gratitude. To this end, physical jars can be decorated and placed in a conspicuous area where people tend to hang out (e.g., the kitchen or living room) in order that it can be filled with notes of gratitude. In corporate environments, starting meetings by reading a memo from the gratitude jar can help to foster a work environment where setting time aside to give thanks is valued.

All of these simple exercises can help us to more fully observe and appreciate the positive aspects of our lives (e.g., “stop and smell the roses”) by helping us to take an active role in fostering more positive moments (e.g., “watering the roses”). And today I am most grateful for having had the opportunity to share these exercises with you 🙂

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