woman holding a thank you card(Photo: Courtesy of Rodale)

Many people today are struggling to make do with less. What's the secret to finding happiness when you're coping with loss? If we observe people who know how to be happy, we find that they make a point of being grateful for whatever they have. And it's not related to how much material wealth you may or may not possess. A growing body of research has demonstrated that grateful people are happier than their less-grateful counterparts, regardless of their income level.

THE DETAILS: Gratitude has also been found to be a powerful antidote to depression. Martin Seligman, PhD, a pioneer in the positive psychology movement, and colleagues at University of Pennsylvania delivered gratitude instructions to 50 severely depressed visitors to a self-help website. They recommended that individuals take time each day to write down three things that went well that day, and why they thought so. Fifteen days later, 94 percent of the 50 individuals reported feeling significantly less depressed. Their scores on a widely used depression inventory dropped by 50 percent -- equivalent to improvement seen with medication treatment or psychotherapy, although the latter interventions generally take longer to work. Individuals in a placebo-controlled group who wrote down three childhood memories each day did not experience an improvement in their depressive symptoms. More important, the effects for the group practicing gratitude lasted for a full 6 months. The researchers repeated the same study several months later with a different group of depressed Web users and obtained substantially the same results. Seligman's group also found that writing in a gratitude journal had a mood-boosting effect for depressed patients in a 12-week therapy group, as well as for patients in individual therapy.

WHAT IT MEANS: Cultivating gratitude is a powerful way to overcome adversity and depression. By choosing to focus on your blessings, rather than ruminating on your disappointments and deficits, you nourish positive feelings about yourself, your life, and others. As an ongoing attitude, gratitude will help you cultivate happiness throughout your life. It is no accident that the individuals in Seligman's study maintained their gains long after they completed the online intervention. Gratitude is habit-forming. The number of things you can be grateful for is infinite. As a happiness resource, gratitude is free and inexhaustible.

There are many ways you can weave gratitude into the fabric of your life:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down three things you experienced that you feel grateful for. They could be as varied as the buds appearing on the trees in your yard and appreciation for the kindness extended to you by a stranger. As you chronicle the things you feel grateful for, make a point of not repeating any of the prior entries in your journal.
  • Write and deliver a gratitude letter to someone in your life whom you have not properly thanked for what they have given to you. You can deliver the letter in person or read it over the telephone. It's a powerful experience, for you as well as for the person you're thanking.
  • Say grace before each meal to express your thanks for the food you are about to eat.
    Use whatever language you're comfortable with, whether religious, spiritual, or just an informal expression of gratitude for the meal.
  • Make a point of thanking anyone who serves you in any way -- the cashier at the checkout counter, your child for clearing the dinner table, the tech-support person who helped you fix your computer.
  • Take gratitude breaks during the course of each day to simply appreciate the myriad blessings, large and small, that are present in your life.

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, "Mind-Body-Mood Advisor," appears weekly on Rodale.com.