The Gift of Gratitude
This series takes an innovative, modern, and tailored approach to financial planning and is designed to help you craft a unique strategy that focuses not only on wealth but also on discovering a deep and sustaining sense of fulfillment. Drawing on principles from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we will cover issues like finding a purpose, embracing the unknown, and how to develop empathy and acceptance as we consider the question “what’s the point of it all?” To read other pieces from the series, click here.
Over the past few years, we’ve experienced an unusual amount of disruption, unpredictability, and stress. Yet, in spite of many challenging events, each of us has also enjoyed special moments—large and small—that have given us hope, happiness, and a feeling of gratitude. Perhaps those moments have consisted of more time at home with your children or the flexibility of virtual work or maybe the opportunity to explore a new hobby. We’ve all found little joys and simple pleasures, even amidst the difficult environment that has surrounded us.
The COVID-19 pandemic also helped us appreciate the many aspects of “normal life” that we once took for granted. And as these aspects of daily life return, we feel a sense of relief and even euphoria. Once again, we can travel more freely and widely, join with family and friends for celebrations, and relish our continued health.
The Benefits of Gratitude
As the world normalizes, it’s an opportune time to adopt some of the habits of gratitude that you’ve no doubt heard or read about. As research amply demonstrates, making gratitude a daily habit improves our sense of fulfillment and enriches our relationships.
Practicing gratitude not only helps us recognize what is going well in our lives, but it can actually amplify and change our perceptions and our actions. Practicing gratitude can bring us into a state of contentedness and satisfaction, transforming “what we have” into “enough.”
Dr. Robert Emmons—one of the most esteemed researchers of gratitude—and his team have found that people who regularly practice gratitude are happier, healthier, and have stronger relationships. When we express gratitude, our brains release dopamine and serotonin, hormones that can make us feel more joy and less stress. As Dr. Emmons points out, you can’t feel gratitude and envy at the same time; they’re contradictory emotions. Thus, his research has found that those who practice gratitude regularly experience less envy and resentment than those who do not.
Establishing Your Gratitude Habit
Yet, it’s one thing to know that you “should” feel grateful, but it’s another thing to understand how to practice gratitude and experience its powerful effects. One helpful adage to keep in mind is: “Thankful is a feeling, gratitude is a behavior.” Consider how to incorporate acts of gratitude into your daily routine.
A popular first step is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you start every day by briefly writing about three to five aspects of your life that you are thankful for. When keeping a gratitude journal, don’t put too much pressure on yourself—these don’t need to be “big” things; they can (and perhaps should) be simple, everyday pleasures.
The benefits of gratitude journals are well documented. In one study, researchers asked participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or aggravations, and the third wrote about events that had notable events during the week (whether positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. But they didn’t only feel better. They also exercised more and experienced fewer physical ailments than those who focused on sources of frustration.
Formally expressing thanks to people in your life is another practice that can enhance your feelings of connection and happiness. Researchers have demonstrated how expressing gratitude improves your relationships with others. For example, a study of couples found that when people expressed gratitude to their partner, they not only felt more positive toward their partner but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Martin E. P. Seligman, a leading professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has also shown that expressing gratitude enhances happiness and overall wellbeing. In a recent study, he examined how various positive psychological interventions affected a sample of 400 people. One intervention prompted participants to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone whom they had never properly thanked. Immediately afterward, participants’ happiness scores skyrocketed. In fact, this act had a greater impact than any other intervention in the study, and the benefits of this act lasted for a month.
Past, Present and Future
At Truepoint, we have seen clients practice gratitude through several avenues as part of their financial planning. Upon retirement, many clients reflect on who mentored them, the accomplishments they were supported in achieving, and the benefits they enjoyed from a strong work culture. Recently, our former colleague, Lisa Reynolds, sent us a touching note about how her work experiences at Truepoint enhanced her life and helped her plan for a fulfilling retirement.
In addition, as part of the estate planning process, we often facilitate meetings so families can discuss and make decisions about pressing issues. During these meetings, clients often express gratitude for what they have to share with their beneficiaries. And when milestone events occur, such as weddings, a major anniversary, or a notable birthday, there’s often a social element of gratitude built in. People are in the spirit of looking back and appreciating the positive events and supportive folks in their lives. These expressions of gratitude feel good for the person sharing them and for those joining in on the celebration.
But we would gently advise our clients not to wait until life’s big celebrations to take inventory of and acknowledge the many aspects of your life that you are grateful for. Gratitude shouldn’t be reserved for special events. In fact, as research shows, actively and regularly practicing gratitude is how you and those around you can experience the greatest benefits.
In terms of expressing gratitude through financial planning, you can establish charitable giving and philanthropic endeavors that give back to your community and acknowledge those who have given to you. In addition, many of our clients write a “legacy letter” version of their estate plan in which they lay out their values, intentions, and—yes—their thankfulness so that their beneficiaries have a clear and heartfelt sense of their wishes. However you choose to incorporate gratitude, we believe it is a critical component for experiencing long-lasting satisfaction and peace of mind with your financial plan, as well as with your life.
Throughout this series on life planning, we’ve explored several practices that help people experience fulfillment, enjoy the gifts of their lives, and pursue self-actualization. Gratitude is another essential practice on this journey. Those pursuing self-actualization prioritize the expression of gratitude and make it an active, ongoing, consistent practice in their lives. Practicing gratitude helps them remain present in the moment and to recognize and experience the fullness of their lives, in times of plenty and in times of difficulty. It is a powerful bridge that connects your past, present, and future, as well as your individual self with those around you, in transformative and constructive ways.