Being grateful goes beyond being thankful. Studies are showing that a daily gratitude practice can help you be healthier emotionally and physically. Scientists are currently doing a deep dive into how gratitude affects the brain, and they are finding that it can help with depression, decrease fatigue, and reduce inflammation in the body. Here’s a look at the exciting findings — and how you can find gratitude for yourself.
Researchers at the University of California Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) take gratitude seriously. They’ve launched a multiyear project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude with psychologist Robert Emmons at the University of California, Davis, founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, author of The Little Book of Gratitude, and deemed the world’s preeminent expert in gratitude.
Together, they’re confirming what’s been suspected about gratitude for a long time, reporting consistently that people who focus on practicing gratitude are healthier, experience less illness (including depression), have stronger relationships, behave in more generous ways, and are overall happier and more optimistic. But what exactly is gratitude? It goes beyond saying thank you to people for passing the salt at dinner or feeling grateful when someone helps you with something.
In an essay for the GGSC, Emmons says that, first, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. “We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” But second, and more importantly, he explains that gratitude is recognizing that the sources of goodness are outside ourselves and acknowledging that “other people — or even higher powers if you’re of a spiritual mindset — gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” He goes on to say that the social aspects of gratitude are especially important, as gratitude is “a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people,” which encourages us to repay and pay forward the support. Sociologist Georg Simmel calls this “the moral memory of mankind.”
A gratitude practice increases quality sleep, allows us to handle stress with more ease, and improves our overall well-being.
In addition to having a positive emotional and psychological impact on our lives, gratitude can also have a positive physical impact. More studies are needed, but Lara Heimann, a physical therapist with advanced degrees in kinesiology, neurology, and physiology, says practicing gratitude not only makes you feel better in the moment but has a potential long-term impact in the brain, body, and spirit.
“The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that is responsible for bodily functions like sleep, thermos-regulation, and growth, has been shown to activate when we feel grateful,” explains Heiman, who has developed a yoga method rooted in physical therapy and functional anatomy with positive attitude and gratitude at its core. “We also release dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel happy and satisfied, when we practice gratitude. And a feedback loop is quick to develop because we want to do more of what brings us happy feelings. [A] gratitude practice increases quality sleep, allows us to handle stress with more ease, and improves our overall well-being.”
Overall, Heimann says, “Our bodies are more rested and balanced because of the effects on the hypothalamus, so that we inevitably are more inspired, more productive, and more engaged in life.”
What Does Grateful Look Like?
Most of us in general would likely say we are grateful. We’re grateful for our health, our family, our job, a roof over our head. But being a dedicated practitioner of gratitude and frequently acknowledging how grateful we are looks quite different than being generally grateful. Studies have found specific traits and habits of truly grateful people who have seen the positive impact of a purposeful gratitude practice on their lives. They include:
Being truly grateful to people, not just about things. Express heartfelt thanks to others.
Being precise in your thanks. Don’t just say I love you, say why. “I love that you bring me coffee in bed every morning.” “I love that you let the dog out last thing at night.” “I love that you text me every day.”
Thanking outside the box. When something bad happens, we might not typically think it’s a time to feel grateful. But Emmons considers this a way of looking at the world to turn disaster into a stepping stone. He writes that “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio…Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.” So he says it’s important to flip the situation on its head and look for something good in the bad.
Contemplating loss. Research shows that if you think about your own demise, your sense of gratitude increases measurably. This extends beyond death. Don’t feel you got enough of a raise with your promotion? Focus on not getting the promotion at all and you’ll start to feel gratitude replace negative thoughts.
Feeling grateful for small things. In his Little Book of Gratitude, Emmons points out that practicing gratitude is such a simple, scientifically proven way to increase happiness and encourage greater joy, love, peace, and optimism into our lives — and doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. Through easy practices such as keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing thank-you notes, and meditating on the good we have received, we can improve our health and well-being, enhance our relationships, encourage healthy sleep, and heighten feelings of connectedness.
How to Be More Grateful
May McCarthy, author of The Gratitude Formula, says gratitude can help with many aspects of life, including achieving personal goals. She recommends setting aside 20 to 30 minutes each morning to have a goal-planning session with a twist.
“Write down your goals in gratitude statements as though you’ve already achieved the goals, speak the statements out loud, and imagine yourself in the completed goals. For example, instead of saying ‘I want to lose 10 pounds,’ say ‘I’m grateful that I am physically fit, energetic, and healthy in a pain-free body that easily moves through life.’ With statements like that, your subconscious and intuition will be on high alert to illuminate possible steps for you to take to achieve your goals.”
In addition to that morning practice, McCarthy suggests setting your phone alarm to go off every two to three hours, and then close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and recite three to five things that you are grateful for. Then, at the end of the day, just before going to bed, recite two or three statements about things that happened during the day for which you are grateful. Some studies have shown that can help you sleep better.
Need More Convincing?
The latest stats support even more great reasons to be grateful. People with a gratitude practice have, on average:
- 10 percent fewer stress-related illnesses.
- 12 percent lower blood pressure.
- 20 percent higher charitable giving.
- More satisfying relationships.
- Stronger community ties.
- Fewer fights.
- Up to seven more years of life.