When Amy Paulson was growing up in Arizona, people would often stop her on the street with her mum and dad to remark on how lucky she was that her family had adopted her. (Paulson was abandoned at a police station in Seoul when she was a day old and spent her first three months in an orphanage.) “I always thought, Why should I be more thankful to my parents than the next person?” she says.
In 2011, however, Paulson reconnected with her birth mother in South Korea, her adoptive mum by her side. “My Korean mother took my American mother’s hands in hers and said, ‘Thank you.’ After that, my whole world changed,” Paulson says. At the time, she was working in the e-commerce sector and struggling with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. Reconnecting with her birth family, however, made her feel like the luckiest person in the world – and she wanted to actively share her good fortune. That year, she quit her job and co-founded the Global Gratitude Alliance, which partners with grassroots organisations to create community-led solutions for social and economic change.
Since then, a reflexive sense of thankfulness has become Paulson’s frame of reference for work, relationships and daily life in general. That all-encompassing approach can make you happier and healthier, says Louisa Jewell, founder and president of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, a non-profit dedicated to wellbeing. Some call it ‘spontaneous’ gratitude, others describe it as ‘casual’; either way, it’s more than an occasional feeling of appreciation when something goes right.
This attitude, says Jewell, “can become a lens through which you see the world, which is different than just saying thank you to someone.”
Rethink Your World View
“When something bad happens,” says Jewell, “I try to be appreciative that things aren’t worse.” This attitude came in handy seven years ago, when her daughter, then eight, was being bullied at school. On the way to meet with teachers, Jewell mentally ran through all the things she was grateful for – that the school cared, that her child was resilient, that she was able to help her daughter get through the ordeal. “I felt calm and relaxed going into the meeting, rather than being an upset, stressed-out crazy mum.”
It takes practise to connect with those feelings under duress, Jewell admits. In her work, she introduces people to the idea of spontaneous gratitude by getting them to jot down three things they’re looking forward to each morning or three things they’re thankful for each night. It may sound corny, but in fact, there’s a scientific basis to that approach. In March 2016, researchers at Indiana University found that people still felt grateful a few weeks after writing thank you letters to people in their lives; months later, they showed more gratitude-related brain activity. Repetition is key, Jewell says. “Practising creates new neural pathways until it becomes easier, almost habitual.”
Appreciate the Little Things
For Jewell, a trip to a part of Nepal where nobody had easy access to water – clean or otherwise – gave her a new appreciation for hot showers in the morning. That principle can be applied elsewhere. Human beings are always looking for novelty, she says, and when we get something we really want – a car, a house, a delicious new gelato flavour – we enjoy it, but only until our pleasure spikes and our appreciation for that new thing wanes. (A famous 1978 study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois and the University of Massachusetts found that even after winning the lottery, subjects eventually returned to their baseline of happiness.)
But according to a 2007 report from the University of California, Riverside, channelling gratitude can combat that sense of deflation. Pausing to take stock prolongs your happiness, Jewell says, even after the initial thrill wears off. Paulson relied on an app to remind her to find something to give thanks for every day. “That helped change my outlook,” she says. “Watching the sun create an interesting shadow, for instance – there’s joy in that, even if it’s only for a second.”
Giving back can bolster those feelings. “Volunteering to help someone less fortunate changes your perspective,” says Jewell, who’s experienced that first-hand through her own work at a women’s shelter. “It shifts your focus onto other people and away from your own problems, and it can keep you in a space of gratitude.” Paulson likes to make donations on behalf of someone who’s had a positive impact on her life. “I find it meaningful to put their name on a little tag, but I don’t always tell the person I’ve done it.”
Being thankful can also strengthen your relationships with the people already in your life. Janice Kaplan, author of The Gratitude Diaries, began by observing and acknowledging a small thing about her husband: she thanked him for doing all the driving after a particularly arduous road trip. That simple act, she says, helped connect them. “I think of it as simply appreciating people. It’s something we don’t do enough of, and it makes all the difference.”
For Paulson, the attitude shift helped her overcome health issues: after ten years on antidepressants, she weaned herself off the drugs (in consultation with her doctors) several months after she returned from Korea. “It’s nearly impossible to sink into the abyss of depression while being present and grateful for my connection with others and the world around me.”
Those positive effects inspired Paulson to share the experience with others. Through a partnership with a home for orphaned children in Nepal, the Global Gratitude Alliance provided teachers with trauma-healing workshops that concluded with a ritual of giving thanks. The participants used those techniques to help their students and community after the devastating earthquake of 2015. Children from the school recently visited a local seniors’ home to build relationships with the residents there. “Gratitude creates a cycle of giving and receiving,” Paulson says.