Does gratitude work? An in-depth report from a year-long gratitude project

My friend and fellow blogger Carolyn from And Then They... started a gratitude project one year ago. She made a new years' resolution and actually saw it through for an entire year. Amazing. I'd been following her project on her blog, then I read an article on the subject of gratitude. It cited several interesting findings about gratitude projects like this from the book, Gratitude Works! by Robert Emmons, and I'm curious if they're true. I'm also interested in any little thing that can be done on a daily basis to slow things down, take stock of what matters, and focus on the positive. (Baby Henry is 3 months old already! When did that happen?!)

Maybe you're interested in taking on a little challenge to make your 2015 better? This could be just the thing. Carolyn was kind enough to answer my questions about her journey, for all our benefit. Here's what she had to say:

1. What made you want to start a project like this?

I think it all started during November 2013.  On Instagram, I started doing the #30daysofgratitude, and really liked it.  I loved taking the time to take a photo of something that made me feel grateful, and posting it to Instagram.  Ali Edwards has  project called One Little Word, and I've done it in the past.  The idea is that you pick a word to be your focus for the year.  After having fun with gratitude in November, I decided to make it a focus for the entire year. 

2. How did your gratitude project work? What were the rules?

I wanted to make Gratitude very present and tangible in my life, and things just sort of fell into place for how I documented it.  My friend gave me a Christmas gift that included a 'best of my days' calendar.  I decided to use this to write down one word each day, saying something for which I was grateful.  Then, I posted those words, along with a photo dump of the week on my blog.  There rules were that I would only write one word a day.  I wanted it to be a single word - not too much stress, not too much detail.  Sometimes, I missed a day, but I would always think back and catch up.

3. In one study by Emmons, he found that people who wrote down one thing they were grateful for each day reported being 25% happier. Another study showed that the subjects had decreased symptoms of depression. Did your project make you feel happier?

I have always been a very positive person, so I'm not sure I can say if the project made me happier.  It made me think about happiness and gladness during the year.  I haven't written about gratitude since 2014 ended, and I don't think I've become more depressed, but I do miss consciously thinking about gratitude.  But, that's the thing about the One Little Word project, your words never really leave you.  When you spend a year with a word, it becomes part of you.

4. Another side effect of gratitude is better health (lower stress hormones, stronger heart, fewer sinful activities like smoking and drinking). Did you experience this?

I'm pretty sure I drank as much wine in 2014 (well, more, since I had been pregnant in 2013).  I definitely didn't get into shape, so I was clearly still eating too much ice cream.  (But, that's why my word for this year is Strong!)  I have to say, though, that 2014 was a ridiculously stressful year.  My husband was forced to switch careers, I had two tiny kids, I had my own job dramas, health scares.  I was able to stay positive throughout it (mostly), and I'd say that giving thanks helped.  There were days when I had to dig pretty deep to find something for which to be grateful, but I always found it.  Maybe without the gratitude, I would have eaten way more ice cream, or taken up smoking!  Who knows?

5. I've heard that you can improve your relationship simply by being more grateful of your partner. I guess over time your partner notices this and then starts to reciprocate the love and gratitude and then there you go: perfect relationship. Is this true?

One of the most surprising things that I found at the end of the project, was that I rarely wrote my husband's name down as my daily gratitude.  I figured that was because it felt too obvious to write his name.  Of course I was grateful for him.  It sort of felt like cheating to write his name.  I wasn't trying to just grab the low-hanging fruit, I was trying to dig deeper.  So, I don't know if this happened with us.  I do hope that my positivity was apparent to him, and possibly helped him through the stressful job hunt, and starting his new job.

6. Some other gratitude theories recommend sharing your appreciation with the people that you are grateful for. Do you think there is a difference between quietly tracking what you are grateful for and publicly thanking people that you appreciate? Would you have done anything differently?

Certainly, I think it is important to share our appreciation.  I posted my words on my blog most weeks, so it was very public.  But, not very personal.  I would write 'friends' or 'family,' so if they read it, they might know I was grateful for them, but that isn't the same as looking your friends or family in the eye and saying you appreciate them.  I wouldn't change how I did things last year, but this year, one of my goals for Strong is to make my relationships stronger.  I plan on writing a letter - more specifically, a thank you note - once a week.  I spent last year giving thanks for the people in my life, this year I plan on actually thanking them.

Carolyn and Her Beautiful Daughter .. oh I miss summer!

Carolyn and Her Beautiful Daughter .. oh I miss summer!

7. Do you recommend a project like this to others?

Definitely.  The 'best of my days' is a great way to get started.  It makes the world a beautiful place to look for the gladness in it.  And can you imagine if everyone did it?  And even more - if everyone took the time to actually thank others?

Thanks, C! To read more about Carolyn, her family, and her many projects (including an Etsy shop!) follow her at And Then They...