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Expressing gratitude is much more than the act of saying “thanks”—it’s the cultivation of a feeling that serves an important biological purpose. Gratitude, according to scientists, is a deep feeling of appreciation. Studies have linked practicing gratitude with an assortment of positive health impacts on physical and emotional well-being, including the following.
Your mind and body are inseparably connected via a constant feedback loop. The activity of your mind, including your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, is constantly influencing your physiology. Researchers have found that focusing our thoughts on gratitude can create many benefits for both our physical health and mental health, including decreased inflammation, greater cardiovascular health, alleviation of depression, and improved mental resilience.
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center started something known as the Thnx4.org project, which is an online gratitude journal. Researchers analyzed the results and discovered that participants who kept an online gratitude journal for just two weeks reported clearer skin, fewer headaches, less stomach pain, and reduced congestion.
Practicing gratitude blocks toxic emotions—envy, resentment, regret, depression—which can wreak havoc on happiness and diminish well-being. As researchers have found, gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness.
Gratitude has also been found to decrease the production of the stress hormone cortisol, and it’s associated with lower blood pressure, while at rest and during times of stress. One study that analyzed the effects of gratitude using functional magnetic resonance imaging and heart rate data found that participants who practiced gratitude had an average heart rate that was “significantly lower” than the group that did not practice gratitude. The same study also found evidence that suggests that practicing gratitude can also help with major depressive disorder and social anxiety disorder.
Researchers have found that gratitude can lead to improved sleep quality and duration. In one study, university students who wrote in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes every evening were able to let go of worries, quiet their minds, and sleep better.
Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for good health because during sleep, our body eliminates toxins, consolidates memories, and repairs and regenerates. Studies have found that sleep deprivation can lead to increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress, mood disorders, cognitive deficits, and an increased likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer.
Open up any of your social media accounts and start scrolling.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see: friend X is on vacation on some exotic island, family member Y just completed their seventh marathon, and coworker Z just got an advanced degree in their “spare” time. Instantly, your brain starts to play the social comparison game: “How do I measure up? Should I travel more? Is my degree enough to compete in today’s workforce? Am I pushing myself enough at the gym?”
Here’s what you rarely see: everyone’s problems, deepest insecurities, losses, and heartaches. Although everyone’s lives appear to be perfect on social media, they aren’t. You know this, yet you still find yourself comparing your real life to other people’s edited and filtered lives on Instagram.
Cultivating gratitude for your real life, including all its flaws and successes, can help you stop playing the comparison game and increase your self-esteem. Self-esteem, or your overall opinion of yourself, is directly linked to your mental health and quality of life. Although self-esteem starts to take shape during your childhood years, your past experiences and relationships do not need to determine your future. Your present thoughts and perceptions play the biggest role in your self-esteem today, which is why gratitude for your current life—flaws and all—can be a tremendous positive influence, promoting a positive attitude in your daily life.
Satisfying relationships, including romantic relationships, close friendships, and social connections with members of your community, can make you healthier and happier. They can also increase your longevity.
Researchers have found that gratitude is important in strengthening and maintaining relationships.
Expressing gratitude can also open the door to new relationships because it promotes social bonding. For example, if you meet someone new at a party, something as simple as sending them a quick text or writing them a note that expresses appreciation can facilitate affiliation and cultivate a new relationship.
On the flip side, you might be asking, “But how does gratitude come into play if a relationship has ended?” It hurts. No matter the reason—incompatibility in fundamental areas, broken trust, poor timing, death—there are few things more gut-wrenching than having to say goodbye to someone with whom you shared a deep connection and loved. Coming to terms with the end of a relationship is among the most difficult life changes that trigger distress. However, daily gratitude can provide a perspective shift that can make the road to healing sting a little less.
There’s an old saying: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” In the face of a lost relationship, consider the gifts the other person gave you. Rather than focusing on what went wrong, think about how this person positively influenced your life and how you did the same for them. Cultivate feelings of optimism and be thankful for the good times you shared. Reflect on how wonderful it is that you knew this person at all and that you loved them so much and try not to focus on your negative emotions. If you do this, you might just find yourself feeling appreciation and smiling—even if just a little—through your pain.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to practicing gratitude; however, research psychologist Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have found that gratitude results from a two-step cognitive process:
Don’t be selective about what you’re grateful for; make it a habit to appreciate everything—even the seemingly routine things in your life, like the fact that you have access to this incredible resource known as the internet, that you have a warm bed to sleep in at night, or that you have people in your life who want to spend time with you.
Some people like to take a few minutes each day to think of and express thankfulness for a handful of things they feel grateful for. Others prefer to keep a daily gratitude journal, where they regularly write about what or whom they’re thankful for and why. Some incorporate their expressions of gratitude into spiritual or religious practices, such as saying a blessing before a meal. Others practice gratitude by expressing appreciation for someone on the phone or in person, sending a thank-you text, writing a letter of gratitude, or by doing random acts of kindness for the people in their life.
No matter how you choose to practice or express gratitude, take time to notice how you feel before, during, and afterward. Notice the positive mental strength and attitude it brings to your daily life. Your reflection and awareness of how you feel is key to experiencing the positive health impacts that come with being thankful.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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