How Gratitude Improves Our Health and Well-being
This year has definitely given us plenty of reasons to feel down and depressed, or even irritated and angry at times. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming 2020 for our problems and indulging in daily complaining and grumbling that things are not the way they should be.
In many ways, it’s true; we’ve faced more challenges this year as a collective than any other in recent memory. But we also have much to be grateful for, even in challenging times. And perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a lot of evidence that finding the gratitude in our everyday lives makes us happier and healthier.
As we approach the holiday season, we want to highlight the numerous benefits that simple gratitude can have on our physical and mental health and show you how to reap these benefits for yourself and your family. Example #1: We’re grateful you’re here!
Mental benefits of gratitude
You may be unsurprised to know that expressing gratitude tends to make us feel happier overall. But did you know it also increases self-esteem, a sense of optimism, and even improves the stress response?
Gratitude improves self-esteem, increases optimism, makes us happier, and lowers stress!
Gratitude as a practice to increase feelings of happiness has been extensively studied over the last few decades. A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Martin Seligman, performed an experiment with 411 people in which participants were asked to write and hand deliver a thank you letter to someone whom they had never thanked for their kindness. The study found that participants experienced a huge increase in happiness scores, with the benefits lasting for a whole month!
Gratitude is also a powerful tool for increasing one’s self-esteem. A 2011 study found that people who participated in a four-week long “gratitude contemplation program” had greater self-esteem and greater overall satisfaction with their lives than control group participants. The results of this study indicate that gratitude leads to people feeling better about their circumstances and place in life, which leads them to feel better about themselves as individuals.
Gratitude also promotes increased feelings of optimism. At first glance this may seem no different than happiness, but optimism refers more to the way we view circumstances in our lives, especially challenges. Those with an optimistic view point see the positive outcomes in these challenging situations rather than the negative ones, which leads to more feelings of happiness. A 2014 study showed that gratitude journaling resulted in 5 to 15% increases in optimism. In other words, the more gratitude we hold for what we have currently, the more likely we are to believe that good things will continue to happen.
Finally, it seems that gratitude helps us manage our stress response. When studying stress and depression symptoms in hospital staff, researchers assigned a group of staff to practice gratitude regularly. They found that those participants in the gratitude group reported lower stress and depression levels. So finding the gratitude in even highly stressful environments like a hospital can still help negate stress in our lives.
Physical benefits of gratitude
But the benefits of gratitude don’t stop there–-studies have also shown numerous physical benefits of a regular gratitude practice. To name a few, gratitude helps us sleep better, improves heart health, and can even lessen aches and pains.
As we all know, sleep is vital for good health. The body needs rest, and inadequate sleep results in worsened symptoms for just about every condition. Fortunately, gratitude may be a surprisingly effective way to improve the quality of your sleep. A study of 401 people with chronic pain and heart failure found that more grateful patients reported better sleep, longer sleep, and even more wakefulness during the day than those who were not grateful. Even despite their complex conditions, these patients had fewer negative thoughts and more positive ones before bedtime. Turns out, counting your blessings before you fall asleep is actually pretty sound health advice!
Gratitude also seems to have a positive effect on heart health. Women who regularly wrote in a gratitude journal for two weeks actually lowered their blood pressure compared to those who simply wrote about daily events. Another study showed that gratitude even had a positive effect on people with asymptomatic heart failure. Out of 186 patients, more grateful patients experienced better sleep, less fatigue, less depressive symptoms, and lower levels of systemic inflammation.
Do you have sleep issues, fatigue, or chronic pain? Find out how our energy medicine therapies can help!
Speaking of inflammation, grateful people say they feel fewer generalized aches and pains, and they also report feeling healthier overall. Given its numerous benefits for improved sleep, heart health, mental health, and more, it’s no wonder that more gratitude equals less pain. All the more reason to stay in a grateful state of mind!
How to practice gratitude
There are many ways we can actively incorporate more gratitude into our lives, from simple thought exercises to writing a full letter thanking someone you wouldn’t normally recognize. Here are a few simple options to keep in mind.
Keep a gratitude journal. There are no hard and fast rules for the journal, just that you write in it regularly. You might choose to write a short list of things you’re grateful for each day or write a longer narrative each week. If you want to see the aforementioned sleep benefits, try writing out just 10 things you’re grateful for 15 minutes before you go to sleep at night. However, starting your day with gratitude journaling may help put you in a positive frame of mind while you go about your daily tasks.
Apply gratitude to the past, present, and future. Whether it’s a written or mental list, we can all recall past experiences, present circumstances, and potential future opportunities we are grateful for. Reflecting on each grateful moment from past to present to future allows us to build that optimism muscle that also increases happiness over time.
Write a thank you note. It’s one thing to be grateful for things and people in your own life, but expressing gratitude to others is also a powerful tool. Elena Anguita from Scranton, Pennsylvania has written thousands of thank you notes over the last several years, and she credits the practice with feeling “more at peace, less stressed, healthier, and just happier, every single day.” So next time you’re feeling down, break out the thank you notes and scribble away!
Go for a gratitude walk in nature. Here are three healthy practices in one: walking, experiencing nature, and practicing gratitude! If you have difficulty with a wandering mind, practicing gratitude while walking outside can be an especially useful activity. Walking grounds us to the earth and slows our thoughts, allowing us to observe the beauty around us and be thankful for it. Try starting with simply listing what you see: “Thank you for the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass, the air…” Before you know it, you’ll have a list a mile long.
Practicing gratitude regularly can have a number of positive effects on our mental and physical health, from increased happiness and optimism to better sleep and lower inflammation.
The trick to experiencing the positive benefits is consistency over time combined with real feeling. Don’t worry; this pretty much comes naturally once we get into the practice. Pick an activity that resonates with you, and just start, even if you’re inconsistent at first.
Once you do start, odds are you’ll naturally become more consistent with a gratitude practice over time; feelings of gratitude and acts of kindness (like writing a thank you note) release the feel-good chemical dopamine in our brains, encouraging us to practice gratitude again and again. We feel good, we make others feel good, and the cycle repeats for the benefit of all.
That reminds us! Thank you for reading today, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to know more about how we can help you achieve a happier and healthier life at BHW.
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