Positive psychology research shows that character is deep. Twenty-four different strengths, to be precise. And while society may value some more than others, we know that all 24 components to character are important — and are tied to an individual’s well-being. While all but one (humility) are positively correlated with well-being, there are two character strengths that really stand out: gratitude and love of learning.
I had the chance to collaborate on some research with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. We learned that the character strength of gratitude is the single best predictor of well-being. So what can you do to bolster your gratitude? Fortunately, researchers have focused a lot of effort answering this question in the past decade. It’s easy to let life’s challenges and problems crowd out gratitude. All three of these suggestions revolve around making time to think about and focus on all the good in your life.
1. Three good things. There is something positive to take from almost any circumstance. Often, it’s up to us to decide whether to look for the bad or the good — and most likely, we’ll find whichever it is we’re looking for. Positive psychologists have developed an exercise called “3 good things,” also referred to as “what went well.” Every day for 21 days, sit down in the evening and write down 3 things that went well during the day. Don’t repeat any of the items. It won’t take long before you realize that your life, no matter how difficult or stressful, is still full of a lot to be thankful for. Doing this literally trains your brain to be more aware of the good things in your life.
2. Gratitude letters. Carve out 10 minutes and write a hand-written letter to someone in your life who has made a deep, positive impact on your life. Let them know how much you appreciate it and that you are grateful for the role they played in your life. If you can, hand-deliver it. If not, put it in the mail so that the person doesn’t read it on a computer screen or smart phone. Doing this has proven to effect life satisfaction for both the author and recipient for up to 6 months!
3. Take a gratitude walk. Leave your phone at home and take a 15–20 minute walk in the neighborhood or local park with one goal in mind: Think about what you’re grateful for and how you can express that gratitude when the walk is over. Then pick up the phone, call someone, send a text message or write an email to someone you’re grateful for. Because the character strength of gratitude is not just about recognizing what you’re thankful for — it’s about expressing it.
Beyond the improved well-being that gratitude drives, there is a host of other benefits that hundreds of researchers have uncovered over the past 15 years. Grateful people have lower cortisol levels (related to stress) and tend to sleep better, especially when they think about what they are grateful for in the hour before falling asleep. The character strength of gratitude also enhances our relationships because people like spending time around people who are grateful (go figure!). While the benefits of gratitude are crystal clear, it still takes time and effort to make it happen — so I hope you commit to finding some time in your busy schedule of life to make gratitude a priority. You won’t regret it.
Mike Erwin is the cofounder and president of The Positivity Project and co-author of the forthcoming book, Lead Yourself First. He earned his Masters in Positive Psychology from the University of Michigan in 2011, where he had the honor to study under the late Dr. Chris Peterson. He can be found at @ErwinRWB on Twitter and Instagram.