No one can escape the curveballs that life throws at us. The old adage "when it rains, it pours" can also be true. We live fast, always going. And when nothing amazing has happened for awhile to cause us to pause and be grateful, we naturally start to slip into being less focused on the positives of each moment and opportunity.
An enormous amount of research and a myriad of studies point to this simple truth: gratitude is the key to better mental health, and even physical health.
Gratitude is so much more than being thankful.
It is the mental exercise of choosing to notice the positive, no matter the situation. If you focus on the challenge, the pain, or the loss—you're constantly focusing on the negative side of the situation. There's two sides to every coin—and looking at the other side, where gratitude lives, takes a bit of training your mind.
The benefits of being grateful extend further than you may believe—being grateful influences all aspects of our lives. The mental health benefits are obvious, but the many and significant physical health benefits are worth understanding.
Could some of your physical pains and troubling moods be linked to a lack of gratitude? The good news is that creating simple habits from gratitude training may alleviate a lot of the negative and painful areas you are dealing with.
How gratitude affects our mental health.
It’s not surprising that when you’re feeling in the dumps that a well-meaning friend may suggest you 'counting your blessings' or 'look on the bright side.' At the time, it’s not always what we want to hear, however; when done with sincerity, being grateful can boost our mental state in many ways.
Gratitude lowers symptoms of depression & stress.
In two longitudinal studies, findings suggest that “higher levels of gratitude reduce depression… even in the face of disease” (Woods, 2008). During the start and end of the study participants’ first semester of college, researchers examined relationships between gratitude, stress, and depression.
Both studies supported a direct model where gratitude led to lower levels of stress and depression and improves emotional resiliency (Woods, 2008).
Gratitude training can help you adopt better eating habits.
Gratitude even affects our waistlines! In one study of many individuals, adolescents and young adults were randomly assigned to different groups, where group A wrote weekly gratitude letters and group B (the control) listed their daily activities each week.
Those that wrote weekly gratitude letters ended up eating healthier over time compared to the control group (Fritz, 2018). This suggests that, while keeping a food journal is a good idea and holds you accountable, there may be more power in keeping a gratitude journal and documenting what you are thankful for.
Yes, being grateful may help you adopt healthier eating habits. The study doesn't explain to what extent, but the thought is that gratitude for your health, your body, and even healthy food, can assist you in making healthier food choices.
Gratitude reduces materialism and increases generosity.
A study of 900 adolescents was conducted through a nationally representative survey. It showed that adolescents with a grateful disposition were less materialistic (Chaplin, 2018).
In another study, adolescents who kept a gratitude journal (or a similar activity) had reduced materialism and increased generosity. The study found that those who kept gratitude journals donated 60% more to charities compared to the control group (Chaplin, 2018).
Being grateful improves relationships.
It makes sense that when we express gratitude for someone important in our life, that person feels amazing. It's a beautiful gift to feel appreciated, heard, loved, valued.
What's really interesting though, is that the act of expressing gratitude to others not only benefits the recipient, it also benefits the giver.
"When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves."
—William Arthur Ward, American inspirational writer.
In one study, those that were more appreciative of their significant other were more likely to still be in the relationships nine months after an initial evaluation (Gordon, 2013).
How gratitude affects our physical health.
Our minds are powerful. So why does it seem surprising that gratitude training can improve our physical health? The mind-body connection has been proven and exemplified over and over. Those who embrace this, investing in their mental health, in being thankful and having gratitude for all circumstances, are leading better lives.
"Gratitude has a health maintenance indication for every major organ system."
—Dr. P Murali Doraiswarmy, Head of Biologic Psychology, Duke University Medical Center
A few ways that gratitude influences our physical health include lowering inflammation and blood sugar, reducing pain, improving sleep and immune function, and offering an overall increase in health and vitality. Here's how—
Lowers Inflammation: In 2015, a study was published suggesting that heart failure patients that expressed more gratitude had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers in their blood (Mills, 2015).
Improves Sleep: With the weight of the world on our shoulders, it may be hard to have deep, quality sleep. However, numerous studies show the same trend: being grateful “increases the quality of our sleep, decreases the time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens the duration of our sleep!” (Lakhiani, 2917)
"When I'm worried and cannot sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep... and I fall asleep, counting my blessings."
Improves Immune Function: Sick of that winter cough and cold? According to research, when practiced daily, gratitude will strengthen your immune system as it lowers your stress and helps you sleep better (Segerstrom, 1998).
Lowers Blood Sugar:In the American Journal of Health Behavior, a study is highlighted where participants with Type 2 diabetes who spent time mindful of the positives in their life, saw improvement in blood sugar levels (Loucks, 2016).
Improves Health:When a person is grateful they typically take better care of themselves and have to go to the doctor less (Morin, 2014).
How does gratitude affect us physically?
Amazingly, the simplicity of gratitude is connected to brain chemistry. You see, when we are grateful, our brain is altered in many positive ways.
Research shows that the neurological effects from gratitude can open the door to physical and mental benefits. The physical response of gratitude is:
- The brain triggers a release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin.
- The brain inhibits cortisol, the stress hormone.
- Grateful thoughts activate your hypothalamus, further regulating stress.
- Gratitude activates the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which produces pleasure, making you feel good just by thinking positive.
Gratitude training is mental exercise.
For those of us that don’t always see the world with rose-colored glasses, it may be difficult to suddenly go around being grateful. That’s why cultivating the simple habit of gratitude may initially be difficult. Being grateful requires mental exercise.
Here are a few mental exercises to get your grateful mind activated:
Gratitude journal or gratitude jar: Designate a notebook, or a quart jar and strips of paper. At some point during each day, write a few things that you’re grateful for. This daily exercise will slowly help you increase the number of times you find to be thankful. Every so often, look through your journal, or dump out your jar, and read over these moments of gratitude.
Thank you cards: One study found that writing three thank you notes for three weeks “improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings, and reduced symptoms of depression” ( Gunderman, 2018). Pausing to first think about thanking someone, and second to actually write it out, helps you cultivate that heart of gratitude. The effort involved in expressing how thankful you are should also bring you positive effects.
Meditation and prayer: Each day Buddhist monks engage in “gratitude meditation” where they consider their blessings. Meditation is one of the most powerful mental health tools, and focuses on not judging your thoughts or feelings but merely accepting them and working through the tough ones. Prayer is similar—you're reaching beyond yourself, to your higher power, for grace, peace and understanding.
Try meditating or praying for 10-15 minutes each day. After a few weeks, you may notice a “fuller sense of inner-stability” and gratitude. (Carrington, 2018).
Daily gratitude minute: Set an alarm to go off at the same time each day to remind you to take a minute to think of several things that you are grateful for. Maybe this spurs you to text your parents or best friend with a note of gratitude. Maybe your alarm is set for later in the day, when you're home with your family, reminding you to stop and be grateful for all the goodness surrounding you.
Find the strategy that works best for you or come up with your own way to increase moments of gratitude.
As you choose to exercise gratitude, your life may change even if your circumstances do not. Sure, there will always be negativity, criticism, and entitlement around us. It can be easy to feel sorry for ourselves and forget all the good there is around us and within. But cultivating the simple habit of gratitude can turn all of that around.
At Lakanto, we are so grateful to have you in our world. We hope to provide healthful, helpful value on your wellness journey, and that you continue with us in #discoveryourchi.