Many cultures observe holidays in which gratitude is the main component.
Israelis observe Sukkot, Canadians observe Jour de l’Action de Grâce, Koreans observe Chuseok, Germans observe Erntedankfest, and Americans observe Thanksgiving.
Gratitude has been a vital element of the human experience throughout history. In fact, researchers have revealed that gratitude has deep roots embedded in human evolution and DNA. Even so, it has only been about two decades since gratitude-focused research has revealed the fundamental impact practicing gratitude regularly can have on our well-being.
If gratitude is central to well-being, then what impact can cultivating gratitude have on the success of your health and wellness coaching process?
This article describes the research-based connection between gratitude and well-being and suggests ways you can support your client in cultivating gratitude in their own lives.
How to Define Gratitude
The word gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation and to return kindness.” Gratitude researchers Watkins, VanGelder, and Frias observe that the roots of the word have close associations with unmerited favor.
In that simple definition, we can recognize an internal process (being thankful for a positive outcome in one’s life that was not due to them) that then inspires the person feeling gratitude to express the thankfulness through being kind to others. It is a practice as much as it is a feeling, where an individual acknowledges the source of the feeling.
Some psychologists categorize gratitude into three types:
- Gratitude as an affective trait, which is an individual’s tendency to have a grateful disposition. Some people are generally gracious people; they tend to see the silver linings even in difficult situations.
- Gratitude as a mood, which are daily fluctuations that point toward a gracious mood. When a person has a gracious mood, they might have a day where they are more aware of how others have had a positive influence on their well-being.
- Gratitude as an emotion, which is a temporary feeling of gratitude after recognizing an external source of a positive outcome, such as feeling gratitude after a friend drops off some homemade soup because he heard you were feeling sick.
These three different types of gratitude can overlap, and while gratitude as an affective trait is likely linked to personality factors, gratitude can be cultivated with specific interventions and exercises, some of which can be easily included in your coaching practice.
The Connection Between Gratitude and Wellness
Gratitude in all its forms is strongly associated with happiness and a sense of well-being. Gratitude researchers propose that practicing gratitude may help to increase positive emotions, allowing individuals to broaden their outlook and be more creative in finding solutions to problems while also building an ability to bounce back from negative emotional states. Additionally, gratitude may help individuals look at their situation in a different light, which, in psychology, is called cognitive reframing.
Since medical students face significant mental health challenges throughout their medical training, researchers wanted to examine the role of cultivating gratitude in improving wellness. One study aimed to evaluate how a simple 30-day gratitude practice could improve dispositional gratitude among medical students.
Over the course of the study, forty-six medical students were invited to log three good things that happened to them each day, either by chance or as a result of a kind action of another. Their dispositional levels of gratitude were evaluated using a form called the short-form Gratitude Resentment and Application Test (GRAT) before and after the 30-day intervention.
Even though the study was small, researchers found that this simple practice of logging three things for which they are grateful improved dispositional gratitude among medical students, especially among female students.
Other studies have evaluated how gratitude and life satisfaction are associated. One cross-cultural study in particular found that higher levels of gratitude increase life satisfaction, which in turn increases gratitude. Overall, it leads to a positive spiral in that person’s life and in the lives of those around them.
Researchers have also found that gratitude is associated with greater relationship satisfaction, social functioning, and feelings of connectedness to others.
Gratitude is even associated with greater sleep quality and more sleep duration!
3 Strategies to Integrate into Your Coaching Practice to Cultivate Gratitude
The field of positive psychology has had a central role in rediscovering gratitude and applying what was learned to professions such as coaching and counseling.
Hundreds of studies have surfaced that test out simple and concrete strategies to cultivate gratitude in individuals. Health and wellness coaches who want to integrate gratitude into their coaching process can integrate these strategies relatively easily.
Below we summarize some of the science-backed gratitude interventions reviewed by Mark E. Young and Tracy Hutchinson.
Start a Gratitude Journal
Gratitude journals are some of the most widely used tools for cultivating gratitude. The basic premise of gratitude journaling is that the individual takes time regularly (from daily to weekly, as it makes the most sense for the client) to write down specific things they are grateful for in their lives.
Coaches can suggest their clients write down three things they are grateful for daily. Some of the benefits of gratitude journaling for mental and physical well-being include:
The advantages of gratitude journaling are that it is very low cost, easy to implement, and has the potential to have significant benefits. However, the coaching and guidance aspect of journaling is important here, as clients may be repetitive in what they write and stop doing it if they find that it is boring or not beneficial to them. Some ideas for making gratitude journaling more dynamic include:
- Providing gratitude prompts that vary by day of the week or randomly, such as “Name three things for which you are appreciative of a teacher you’ve had,” or “what is one kind thing someone has done for you without expecting anything in return?”
- Suggesting themes for different days, such as family, experiences, friends, employment, or health
- Assigning a letting of the alphabet per day, where on that day, the client is challenged to name things they are grateful for that begin with that letter
Note that these are just some suggestions, and not all strategies will work for all people. As a coach, you can personalize the strategies to each of your clients so that they have the greatest effectiveness.
Encourage Benefit Finding
Benefit finding is a technique individuals can develop to see the positive effects of adversity, such as moments of crisis, illness, trauma, and personal difficulties. It is important to note that, in benefit finding, the emotional, physical, and personal challenges and impact associated with difficult or tragic experiences are not ignored. Instead, it is a pointed moment to identify the positive ripple effects of these difficult experiences. Some examples could be:
- Closeness with family
- A renewed energy to care for their health
- A rediscovered spiritual outlook
- Meeting a close friend
- Greater freedom to make choices
- Learning more about themselves (what is important to them, setting boundaries, self-care needs, etc.)
Benefit finding can be practiced through techniques such as a silver lining journal. Researchers examined how the technique could help cultivate gratitude in the lives of frontline workers whose lives were deeply disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the silver lining journal, individuals list things they are grateful for and take the practice further by contrasting and reframing past negative experiences. It challenges the individual to remain in control of their experiences so that they practice finding positive emotions in everyday moments, such as enjoying fresh fruit, hugging a loved one, and receiving kind words.
Practice Gratitude Meditation with Japanese Naikan
Naikan is a therapy system created by Ishin Yoshimoto, a Japanese businessman and Buddhist priest who practiced deep, daily self-reflection. Naikan means “looking inside,” which helps practitioners understand themselves and build awareness about their relationship with others to increase their awareness of the benefits the individual receives from others.
To practice Naikan, for about twenty minutes a day, the client focuses on three questions:
- What have I received from people today?
- What have I given to others?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?
Naikan may be an effective system for your client if the individual is ready for deeper reflection about the interconnectedness of life and the role that they have in receiving benefits and multiplying them for other people. If you feel that your clients (or you, for that matter) can benefit from practicing Naikan, we encourage you to learn more about it.
Giving thanks is deeply embedded in human tradition across cultures. Today, we know that gratitude is associated with improvements in all dimensions of health and wellbeing. There are several gratitude interventions that can be integrated into your coaching practice with the goal of promoting clients’ holistic health, ranging from simple gratitude journaling to the more complex therapy system of Japanese Naikan.
Keep in mind that implementing strategies for cultivating gratitude in your coaching is not always appropriate; gratitude interventions should not minimize your client’s problems or the degrees of suffering. If your client is experiencing deeper issues, you should not hesitate to refer them to a mental health professional.
Additionally, your client may also not be interested in implementing gratitude strategies in their lives. Remember that in trauma-informed health behavior change science, the coach needs to hold a space where they respect the client’s independence and agency.