To educate yourself for the feeling of gratitude means to take nothing for granted, but to always seek out and value the kindness that will stand behind the action. Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude. -- Albert Schweitzer
As the study of happiness and emotional well-being gains popularity in psychological and scientific study (it has long been popular in the fields of religion and philosophy), there is increasing research on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for health and mental/emotional well-being. In this article I will review some of the recent findings about the relationship between gratitude and health, and will then outline some ways to increase the experience and expression of gratitude in your life.
Researchers like Martin Seligman, Robert Emmons, and Michael McCullough are turning their attention to the study of gratitude and its relationship to health and mental well-being. I will present some of their findings here to help us understand how gratitude is helpful and why it's important to our well-being.
- People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis have been found to exercise more regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and feel more optimistic about their upcoming week as compared to those who keep journals recording the stressors or neutral events of their lives.
- Daily discussion of gratitude results in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, energy, and sleep duration and quality. Grateful people also report lower levels of depression and stress, although they do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.
- People who think about, talk about, or write about gratitude daily are more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another person.
- Those with a disposition towards gratitude are found to place less importance on material goods, are less likely to judge their own or others success in terms of possessions accumulated, are less envious of wealthy people, and are more likely to share their possessions with others.
- Emerging research suggests that daily gratitude practices may have some preventative benefits in warding of coronary artery disease.
You might be asking yourself how this all works. There is a complex relationship between thoughts, moods, brain chemistry, endocrine function, and functioning of other physiological systems in our bodies. While an in-depth discussion of this relationship is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that our thoughts can actually trigger physiological changes in our body that affect our mental and physical health. Basically, what you think affects how you feel (both emotionally and physically). So if you increase your positive thoughts, like gratitude, you can increase your subjective sense of well-being as well as, perhaps, objective measures of physical health (like fewer symptoms of illness and increased immune functioning).
There are some very simple ways to increase your experience and expression of gratitude. As Albert Schweitzer notes in his above quotation about gratitude, increasing our conscious awareness of gratitude may require that we train ourselves to think differently. This can be done by incorporating some simple exercises into your life. For example, you might begin to keep a gratitude journal, as noted above in some of the research. Gratitude journals can take many forms, but one way of doing this is to simply write down one thing that you are grateful for each day.
It can be something that happened that day, something you felt, or someone in your life who has made a positive impact on you.
Alternatively (or additionally), you can speak your expressions of gratitude. You can engage a friend or romantic partner in a daily discussion about what you are grateful for. This might take the form of questions like, "What was the best part of your day today?", or "What is one thing that made you feel really happy today?" This kind of discussion not only helps to increase your own awareness of all that you have to be grateful for, but can also promote positive connection and experiences in your relationship with whomever you choose to have these exchanges. For example, instead of having dinner with a friend or partner and talking about all the stressors of your day, this kind of discussion leads you both to focus on the positive things, which in turn helps the stressors feel less significant, and helps you feel happier when around your friend or partner. Basically, gratitude promotes gratitude.
If you find that you're very busy and unable to stick to a regular gratitude practice, see if you can train yourself to notice things, in the moment, that you are thankful for. They can be small things: maybe you notice that your bed is very comfortable, that your lunch is tasty, that a good friend said something nice to you, etc. It is easy to take these kinds of experiences for granted and not direct our conscious awareness to them. But training yourself to notice these kinds of things and really feel grateful for them can help increase your own experience of happiness.
For those of you who have watched the popular movie "The Secret", you are aware of the Law of Attraction that was portrayed and has been written about prolifically. The Law of Attraction states that whatever you think about or talk about will be drawn into your life. If this is true, thinking about what you are grateful for will draw more of that to you. It seems like that's worth a try!