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Gratitude is Good for Your Health

Gratitude is defined as the quality of being grateful;  readiness to show appreciation for, and to return, kindness.

With the end of 2022 quickly approaching, we find ourselves thinking about ways to be happier and healthier in the new year.  One proven way to be happier and less stressed is to practice gratitude.  

People who are grateful are happier, less depressed, and less stressed. They are more resilient.  They are more satisfied with their relationships with friends and family. They feel more in control of their lives, have higher self-esteem, and cope better when things get tough. Being grateful or living with gratitude is something that can be learned.    

So how can you start living with more gratitude?  First, make it a point to be more aware of what you have.  Take an inventory of even the smallest things in your life that you are grateful for.  Think of something you might take for granted—the dinner on your plate every night, a warm place to live, the telephone that keeps you in touch with your daughter who lives in Arizona.  Bringing awareness to and acknowledging what we have helps us live in gratitude.  

Gratitude doesn’t need to be reserved only for momentous occasions:  Sure, you might express gratitude after receiving a special gift, but you can also be thankful for something as simple as a delicious piece of pie.   Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.

Keeping a gratitude journal is an easy exercise.  Every night, before you turn in for the night, think of three things that you have to be thankful for.  They may be big things, like an unexpected visit from a loved one, or small things, like a bird that came to your bird feeder today.  Write them in a journal or notebook before you go to sleep.  In one study, a group of people was asked to practice this gratitude exercise every day for one week. Even though the exercise lasted for only seven days, when measured a month later, participants were happier and less depressed than they’d been at baseline, and they also stayed happier and less depressed at the three- and six-month follow-ups.   

The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. 

You’d think that just one of these findings is compelling enough to motivate you into action. But if you’re anything like me, this motivation lasts about three days until writing in my gratitude journal every evening loses out to watching Jeopardy and old movies on television.

Here are a few ways to help not only to start a gratitude practice, but to maintain it for the long haul.  First, get real about your gratitude practice.  Being excited about the benefits of gratitude can be a great thing because it gives us the kick we need to start making changes.  When we want to achieve a goal, using the technique of mental contrasting—being optimistic about the benefits of a new habit while also being realistic about how difficult building the habit may be – leads us to exert more effort. Recognize and plan for the obstacles that may get in the way. For instance, if you tend to be exhausted at night, accept that it might not be the best time to focus for a few extra minutes and schedule your gratitude in the morning instead.

Open your eyes!  The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing “I’m grateful for my family” week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my granddaughter called me just to see how I am feeling” or “My sister invited me over for dinner.” And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice. Make a game out of noticing new things each day.

Don’t limit yourself—if journaling is feeling stale, try out new and creative ways to track your grateful moments.  Create a gratitude jar this year. Any time you experience a moment of gratitude write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. On New Year’s Eve, empty the jar and review everything you wrote.  You just might find that when a good thing happens, you will think, “That’s one for the gratitude jar!” It can make the moment more meaningful and keeps us on the lookout for more.

Be social about your gratitude practice.  Our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness. Focusing our gratitude on people for whom we’re thankful rather than circumstances or material items will enhance the benefits we experience. And while you’re at it, why not include others directly into your expression of gratitude? Write a gratitude letter to someone who had an impact on you whom you’ve never properly thanked. You could also share the day’s grateful moments when you speak on the phone to your loved one or friend. The conversations that follow may give you even more reasons to give thanks.

It often seems that we are hard-wired for negativity but we can benefit from learning new ways to react and deal with everyday stresses.  You can teach an old brain new tricks!  The brain we’re born with can be changed. (Technically speaking, they call that neuroplasticity.)  We change our brain by adopting new thought patterns, by training our brain as if it were a muscle, to overcome negative thoughts.  It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a real difference in your life. A few simple and even entertaining mental diversions will change things.

The benefits of gratitude are undeniable.  Will you commit to beginning a gratitude practice for your health?