Two simple words—thank you—can open the door to unexpected benefits.
From the Latin gratia, meaning favor, and gratus, meaning pleasing, gratitude can be a feeling, an attitude, a virtue, or a choice. Feeling gratitude is the core of human connectedness–the give and take that supports and strengthens our relationships.
Whether you appreciate another’s act of kindness, the beauty of nature, or “count your blessings,” practicing gratitude can improve your emotional well-being, social relationships, and physical health.
How does it work? Expressing gratitude can help you focus on the positive rather than negative aspects of any situation. Feeling optimism helps you approach challenging situations more productively. In this way, gratitude can dampen your stress response. And less stress hormone, cortisol, means less physical harm to your body.
We all feel gratitude—yet I find that it is underutilized as a proven way of helping you heal, manage stress, and increase your happiness.
The Transforming Benefits of Gratitude
Enhances emotional wellbeing. Of any personality trait, gratitude has one of the strongest links to joy and satisfaction with life. Your mind cannot hold two emotions at the same time. Finding the “gift” in situations can push out destructive emotions such as anger and envy. So, rather than trying to not worry or not think about a stressful event, you will have greater success replacing your negative thoughts with more positive ones.
Improves your relationships. It’s the rule of reciprocity. Acknowledging and appreciating kindness encourages the positive spiral of generosity and good will that strengthens relationships. When people do nice things for you, you are more likely to return the favor. Psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are leading researchers on gratitude. In a series of experiments, they showed that people who are grateful were rated by those around them as being more outgoing, helpful, conscientious, and altruistic.
Gives you resilience. Resilience is a psychological term that refers to how quickly you recover from a stressful event. Reframing your thinking pattern from negative self- doubt and expectation of failure to positively approaching situations as a new challenge is one way. It gives you a sense of control, which “buffers” your stress response and increases your resilience. Using gratitude to build a robust social network is another. Greater support and resources also increases your resilience.
Protects against mental illness. Gratitude not only improves your mental outlook but reduces your risk of mental illness. In a large study evaluating thankfulness in religious practice, gratitude predicted a significantly lower risk of depression and generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine and alcohol dependence, as well as a lower risk of bulimia nervosa.
Gratitude can also be a healing force for overcoming and even growing after a traumatic event. The extent to which you are able to find some benefit from an experience that caused intense suffering can influence your recovery. The contrast between past suffering and the present can also lead you to a higher state of happiness and wellbeing.
Improves your physical health. Gratitude has been proven to lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and improve immune function. Also, people who feel gratitude are more likely to exercise, take better care of themselves, and have healthier habits.
Cultivating Gratitude in Your Life
For some people, gratitude comes naturally. But if your cup is always half empty, you, too, can benefit by cultivating gratitude. Just like optimism, gratitude can be learned.
Catch your negative self-talk. The simplest place to start is by paying attention to those fleeting, automatic thoughts that run through your head. If a particular situation triggers negative self-talk (i.e. “this will never work”, “I can’t do this”) challenge yourself to substitute those thoughts with more positive ones (“I’ll give it a try”).
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves opening your eyes to all aspects of the present moment—the good, the bad, and the neutral—without the judgement that can distort your reality. Focusing on all that you have to be grateful for during a state of full awareness, such as the warmth of the sun on a beautiful day, enhances your attentiveness and blocks out incompatible thoughts.
Keep a gratitude journal. Writing, more than thinking or feeling, crystallizes and organizes your ability to develop gratitude. Take time each day to write three things for which you are thankful. They can be appreciation of what you have, something that happened that day, a personal strength, a simple everyday pleasure, or a person in your life.
Write a thank you note (or email). Taking time to write a person a note expressing your appreciation or letting a person know how they have impacted your life can increase your happiness. Dr. Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist in the field of positive psychology, led an experiment on adults on whom one of their weekly assignments was to write and personally deliver aloud a thank you note. More than any other intervention tested, a thank you visit boosted happiness—with effects lasting a month later.
Consistently focusing on what you have rather than what is missing in your life can at first require discipline. Yet habitual small expressions of gratitude can lead to big differences in your life and health.
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