The power of gratitude to drive our happiness is no secret. Gratitude improves our satisfaction and motivation. It builds our sense of pride. Gratitude carries us through difficult times when we remember that we have much to be thankful for, while also recalling our successes and contributions.
Unfortunately, in the context of busy days and an active life, we easily miss much of what feeds our gratefulness. Research shows that for us to absorb and retain words and experiences that generate gratitude they must capture our attention for at least twenty seconds. This may not seem like much time. But a brief comment, observation, or compliment about a difference we made, assistance we offered, or a problem we solved often moves quickly past our attention. We notice it momentarily then swiftly forget it.
Meanwhile, an unkind word, a critical comment, or skeptical look too often stays with us, leaving us to dissect, speculate, and obsess over what it meant and what we should take from the experience. Again, researchers explain this as an ancient brain response to potential danger. Our brains are wired to pay longer attention to signs and signals of danger than they are to positive messages.
The good news—there are several steps to help us become more aware of and better retain those things for which we are grateful. We can recall and relive these experiences when we need a lift, seek motivation, or just need a reason to feel good. Let’s explore four strategies that bolster and embed gratitude-generating occasions in our memories, making them available when we need them.
First, immediately after hearing a comment, compliment, or a positive experience, we should reflect on its significance and how it makes us feel. Not only does this step extend our initial feelings about the experience, but it also sends a signal to our brain that what happened is important and needs to be stored.
Second, we can reach out to a friend, family member, or trusted colleague to recount what we experienced. Of course, we need to do so in the spirit of sharing good news and something for which we are grateful, not in a bragging manner. When we tell someone about what we experienced, we further embed the memory. We also have someone who is aware of the experience who can remind us of it should we forget.
Third, we can repeat to ourselves what we heard or experienced. At the end of the day or just before we fall asleep is a good time to do this. Like other information in life that we want to retain, repetition is a great way to strengthen our memory.
Fourth, we should record the experience to review and revisit in the future. Making a note or creating a record of a gratitude-generating experience further sets the information in our memory. Equally valuable, months or even years later we can return to what we have recorded to recall and relive the experience. Even better, if we keep these notes and records together, they offer a powerful, years-spanning set of reminders of experiences for which we can be grateful.
The research on gratitude and the twenty seconds necessary for it to stick also has implications for when we offer a compliment, point out an important contribution, or share our gratefulness for the kindness and caring of others. We need to do more than make a general statement or quick observation. The more specific we can be about the impact, the greater the detail we can share. As well, the more we explain how they made us feel, the more likely we will reach the twenty second benchmark and increase the impact and retention of our words.
When we encounter rough patches in life, or even a difficult day, we frequently forget the wealth of things for which we can and should be grateful. However, if we make it a practice to reflect, recount, repeat, and record gratefulness-generating experiences as they happen, we create a treasure chest of grateful memories to revisit and relive.