Expressing Thanks is One of the Simplest Ways to Feel Better
The new year and a new decade are upon us. We’ve set our new year’s resolutions and vow to exercise more, eat better and send more birthday cards.
But there is one way to be healthier in the new year that may have gone unnoticed: practicing gratitude.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness or gratefulness (depending on the context). Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. Within gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. People also recognize that the source of goodness lies (in part) outside of themselves as individuals. This source may be other people, nature or a higher power.
People feel and express gratitude in many ways. Sometimes the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (recognizing good fortune when it appears) and the future (maintaining a positive, hopeful, encouraging attitude about what’s to come).
Better Physical Health
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. The results are tangible.
Focusing on the positive and feeling grateful can improve your sleep quality and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, levels of gratitude correlate to better moods and less fatigue and inflammation and reducing the risk of heart failure, even for those at high risk.
Gratitude and Your Brain
The reason why gratitude is so impactful to health and well-being begins in the brain. Neurological experiments conducted at University of California at Los Angeles found that brain activity increased in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex—which is associated with moral and social cognition, reward, empathy and value judgment. This led to the conclusion that the emotion of gratitude supports a positive and supportive attitude towards others and a feeling of relief from stressors.
Gratitude also stimulates the hypothalamus, which regulates hormones responsible for many important functions, such as body temperature, emotional responses and survival functions like appetite and sleep. One of the neurochemicals associated with the parts of the brain affected by gratitude is dopamine, a pleasure hormone.
Gratitude at Work
Managers who take the time to say ‘thank you’ to people who work for them may find the employees working motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania studied university fund-raisers. The group of fund-raisers who received a pep talk from the director of fund-raising (who told them she was grateful for their work), recorded 50% more phone calls in same time period as those who didn’t receive the pep talk.
Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t truly be happy until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people shift their focus to appreciate what is present and good. With practice, the state of gratitude only grows stronger and more affirming.
Following are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a daily basis:
- Write a thank you note. The thank you note can be a text, email or a regular thank you note or card. Express your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s influence on your life. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Every now and then, write one to yourself.
- Thank someone mentally. Too busy? Too many deadlines? It may help to just think positively about someone who has done something nice for you. Mentally thank the person.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Get an attractive file folder and label it ‘Gratitude’. Keep a small little journal in the folder where you can write down your caring thoughts. Keep little notes or cards people give to you. This will remind you to think about the gifts you receive each day.
- Count your blessings. Pick one time each week where you can decompress and think about what you are grateful for. Write in your journal. Sometimes it is helpful to an odd number of things (1, 3 or 5) that you will identify with each week. As you write, be specific and think about the feelings you get when something good happens to you.
- Meditate. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Often people will focus on a word or a phrase or an event, but it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the sun is shining, a pleasant sound, a piece of music).
Practicing gratitude on a regular basis is not only good for our health, it also enhances the quality of our lives. May this new year be the best one ever…for you.
Sources: Harvard Medial School Mental Health Letter, 2019; Daily Health Post, 2019.