As the new year begins, good things, however small, are happening.
Someone's loved one got a new job in San Francisco. In Charlottesville, a canceled reservation allowed someone else to get a seat on a sold-out train and arrive in time for a wedding. The storybook characters Pooh and Piglet made someone in East Sussex, England, happy, and in Colorado Springs, ever-reliable bacon brightened someone's day.
Grateful people have posted these bright spots on the World Gratitude Map, a crowd-sourcing project with an uplifting mission.
"That is what drove the World Gratitude Map, the idea of giving people the chance to create small moments for themselves to make themselves rich through their own action," said Jacqueline Lewis, one of the project's creators. Lewis is a writer with an interest in resilience, otherwise known as bouncing back.
She compares the map to a journaling exercise in which a person writes down three things for which he or she is grateful every day. Over time, she said, this practice shifts a person's mindset. [7 Tips to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude]
"It is moving your mind over to this place where I think we should all be, which is to keep our eyes on all that is good, beautiful and possible in the world," she said.
The science of feeling good
Positive emotions are challenging to study, because they are difficult to define, "and anything that is hard to define is hard to study," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
In spite of the challenges, psychologists have begun collecting evidence of the benefits of positive emotions, including gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, has studied gratitude and defines it in two parts: First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness in the world, and second, gratitude requires the recognition that the sources of this goodness exists outside of individuals.
Emmons' work suggests not only that gratitude is associated with greater well-being, but that the sentiment and those benefits can be cultivated. For instance, a study he and a colleague published in 2003 showed that those who recorded things that had made them grateful had an improved sense of well-being, slept better and more, felt a greater sense of optimism and connectedness to others. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]
"Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits," Emmons and colleague Michael McCullough wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They noted that the benefits are most pronounced when compared to a focus on complaints and hassles.
In general, research has associated the regular practice of gratitude with physical benefits, such a stronger immune system, and higher levels of broad positive emotions as well as social benefits, such as being more forgiving, outgoing and feeling less lonely and isolated, Emmons writes. (The list of benefits compiled by the center is long.)
Sharing with others is an important aspect of gratitude, other research indicates. Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, had people write letters expressing thanks to someone who had a positive impact on them. Some sent their letters to the person; others kept their letters. Those who shared their letters experienced stronger mental-health benefits than those who just wrote the letter, Simon-Thomas said.