Health and Wellness

Giving thanks is good for your body

In recent years, gratitude has been a rising trend.1 It’s a good thing. There’s a lot of stress, illness and unhappiness in the world, and gratitude is an effective remedy for all of these — and it’s free. Research has shown that gratitude is a powerful way to increase your happiness.2,3,4,5

Alters your brain in a number of beneficial ways — Examples include triggering release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters6 such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and oxytocin; inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol; and stimulating your hypothalamus (a brain area involved in the regulation of stress) and your ventral tegmental area (part of your brain’s reward circuitry that produces pleasurable feelings)7

Increased happiness and satisfaction with life8,9

Stress and emotional distress are reduced

Improves emotional resiliency10

It reduces the symptoms of depression11,12

Reduces pain

Inhibits inflammation and inflammatory cytokines, which lowers inflammation

Lower blood sugar

Improves immune function13

Lower blood pressure

It improves your heart health.14 Reduced risk of sudden death for patients with congestive cardiac failure and coronary heart disease

Reduced risk of heart disease15,16

Self-care encourages better health and general well-being17,18

Sleep better19

Enhances interpersonal relationships20

Productivity Boost21

Minimize materialism22 It increases generosity23 Both of these can increase happiness, and life satisfaction.

Gratitude Defined

Harvard Medical School explained it this way:24

“Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. People acknowledge the goodness in life with gratitude.

People will often recognize that goodness is not only theirs, but also comes from outside. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

One study found that25 gratitude is “uniquely important to psychological well-being.” In teenagers, gratitude has been found to correlate with “positive affect, global and domain specific life satisfaction, optimism, social support and prosocial behavior.”26 It’s even been suggested that gratitude practice and cultivation can be used as a psychotherapeutic intervention with positive effect.27

What Works

NPR interviewed Laurie Santos, a psychologist who teaches science of happiness at Yale.28 “It is one of the most powerful practices in positive psychology. It takes very little time and reaps so many benefits.”

Harvard has noted this:29 There are many different ways to express gratitude and each one is equally valid. Positive memories can be used to express gratitude, such as for past blessings.

It is important to express gratitude and feel grateful for the present. This will remind you not take your good fortune for granted. It can be applied to the future and it becomes a sign of hope and optimism about the possibility that all will turn out well, even if you don’t see the end.

To get the best results, it is important to choose a method you find meaningful. Writing a gratitude note at the beginning of each day might work for some people. For others, quietly contemplating what you’re grateful for — past, present or future — at the end of each day works better.

One particularly potent strategy is to write a letter of gratitude to someone whom you’ve not properly thanked for their kindness, and to hand deliver the letter to them. One study found that 80% of respondents were satisfied with the results.30,31 Doing this led to an immediate, significant increase in happiness scores that lasted for a month.

Sometimes Gratitude Is a Struggle

Sometimes gratitude can be difficult depending on the circumstances. Research suggests that finding one little thing to be thankful for is the best way of overcoming this obstacle, which can lead to more pessimism and guilt.

Maybe you’ve lost your job and your car was repossessed but — thankfully — there’s a bus stop within easy walking distance. Over time, you’ll find it becomes easier to identify additional things to be thankful for.32

Another way to flex your gratitude muscle when life events leave you uninspired is to identify and express gratitude for seemingly “useless” or insignificant things. It could be a certain smell in the air, the color of a flower, your child’s freckles or the curvature of a stone. Over time, you’ll find that doing this will help hone your ability to identify “good” things in your life.

Materialism and Entitlement — Two Common Blocks to Gratitude

Robert Emmons is a leading scientist on gratitude.33 Two common roadblocks to gratitude are materialism and entitlement. If you don’t have anything to be grateful for, think about whether you could have fallen into either of these traps. Greater Good Science Center sent out this newsletter:34

“Seen through the lens of buying and selling, relationships as well as things are viewed as disposable, and gratitude cannot survive this … Research has proven that gratitude is essential for happiness, but modern times have regressed gratitude into a mere feeling instead of retaining its historic value, a virtue that leads to action …

[G]Ratitude can be described as an act of returning favors and not a sentiment. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is the inability to acknowledge having received a favor and refuse to repay it. We can’t choose. [gratitude]Ingratitude is the default choice.

Provision, whether supernaturally or naturally, is accepted as a fact of life. We believe that the universe owes our existence. We don’t want to be held responsible. Spiritually and morally, a person can lose sight of protection, favors and benefits, and become spiritually and morally bankrupt.

People who are ungratful tend to be arrogant, arrogant, vain, and have a strong need for admiration and approval.

Narcissists do not want to be entangled in relationships of reciprocity. They are not willing to repay or give back special favors. Without empathy, they cannot appreciate an altruistic gift because they cannot identify with the mental state of the gift-giver.”

If entitlement is the hallmark narcissism then humility is the remedy and the solution to your struggle with gratitude. As noted by Emmons, “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed. Humility ushers in a grateful response to life.”35

So, gratitude isn’t a response to receiving “your due,” but rather the recognition that life owes you nothing, yet provided you with everything you have anyway — a place to live, family, friends, work, your eyesight, your breath, indeed your very life. When you start seeing everything as a gift, opposed to things you’ve deserved (for better or worse), your sense of gratitude will begin to swell.

How to Strengthen and Build Gratitude

Although a daily gratitude journal is a great idea, there are many other ways you can practice gratitude. I’ve compiled suggestions from various experts below. It is important to be consistent. You must find a way to incorporate your preferred method into every week and then stick with it.

Send thank-you notes36 Thank someone for their effort or cost.

Say grace at each meal — A great way to show gratitude is to say grace at each meal.37 This will allow you to feel closer to your food.

While this can be a perfect opportunity to honor a spiritual connection with the divine, you don’t have to turn it into a religious speech if you don’t want to. You could simply say, “I am grateful for this food and appreciate all the time and hard work that went into its production, transportation and preparation.”

Change your perception — Stress can come from disappointment, and it is well-known that it can have serious consequences on your health. Centenarians consistently cite stress as the number one thing you need to avoid if your goal is to live a long, healthy life. Since stress is virtually unavoidable, the key is to develop and strengthen your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t wear you down over time.

Most centenarians chose to not dwell on the negative events and instead learned how to let them go. But it takes practice. It’s a skill that must be honed daily, or however often you’re triggered.

The foundational principle for letting go of negativity is to recognize that your feelings have little to do about the event, but everything to do what you perceive of it. The ancient wisdom states that events are not good or bad by themselves. Your beliefs about the event are what upset you, and not the fact it occurred.

As noted by Ryan Holiday, author of “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living,”38 “The Stoics are saying, ‘This happened to me,’ is not the same as, ‘This happened to me and that’s bad.’ They’re saying if you stop at the first part, you will be much more resilient and much more able to make some good out of anything that happens.” And, once you can see the good, you’re more apt to feel gratitude.

Be mindful of your nonverbal actions — Hugging and smiling can be used to show gratitude, encouragement, enthusiasm, empathy, and support. These actions can also increase your inner experience positive emotions.

Give praise — Research39 shows using “other-praising” phrases are far more effective than “self-beneficial” phrases. For example, praising a partner saying, “thank you for going out of your way to do this,” is more powerful than a compliment framed in terms of how you benefited, such as “it makes me happy when you do that.”

The partner felt happier and more affectionate towards the person who gave the praise. Also, be mindful of your delivery — say it like you mean it. Eye contact is another way to show sincerity.

Prayer and/or mindfulness meditation — You can also cultivate gratitude by saying thanks in prayer or meditation. Mindfulness is a way to be aware of the present moment. While a mantra can be helpful in maintaining focus, you can also use it to focus on something positive, like a pleasant smell or cool breeze.

Create a nightly gratitude ritual — One idea is to make a gratitude jar.40 A place where the whole family can put notes of gratitude each day. Any container or jar will work. You can simply write a short note on a small piece of paper and then put it in the container. A few people make an annual (or biannual, or even monthly) event of going through the entire jar and reading each slip out loud.

Spend money on activities instead of things — Research shows that41 Spending money on experiences generates more gratitude than material consumption and motivates generosity.

As noted by co-author Amit Kumar, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago, “People feel fortunate, and because it’s a diffuse, untargeted type of gratitude, they’re motivated to give back to people in general.”42

Embrace the idea of having “enough” — According to many who have embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, the key to happiness is learning to appreciate and be grateful for having “enough.”

Depression and anxiety can be caused by financial difficulties and work stress. It is better to spend less and appreciate more. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, practice being grateful for the things you already have, and release yourself from the iron grip of advertising, which tells you there’s lack in your life.

Many who have adopted the minimalist lifestyle claim they’ve been able to reduce the amount of time they have to work to pay their bills, freeing up time for volunteer work, creative pursuits and taking care of their personal health, thereby dramatically raising their happiness and life satisfaction. The key here is deciding what “enough” is. Consumption is not the problem, but unchecked, unnecessary shopping is.

A lot of times, material possessions are a sign you’re trying to fill a gap in your life. But, that void cannot be filled with material goods. The void is often silently asking for love, connection, and experiences that are meaningful and passionate. You can make an effort to discover your authentic, spiritual, emotional, and spiritual needs. Then, focus on satisfying them in ways other than shopping.

Tapping — Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a tool that can help with a variety of emotional problems, such as lack of gratitude, is helpful. EFT is psychological acupressure, which uses the energy meridians found in acupuncture. It can quickly restore inner harmony and heal your mind. Julie Schiffman, an EFT practitioner, demonstrates how to tap into gratitude in the video.

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