The mind-body connection is quickly coming of age. We’ve moved from the early stage when researchers were challenged to prove that our thoughts affect our bodies. The next stage was focused on how toxic mental patterns can harm us. Now a new phase has dawned, where “positive psychology” is the main focus. Gratitude is the prefect example of positive psychology.
In one 2003 study, a group of subjects kept a personal journal for 10 weeks, in which they rated their mood, physical health, and other factors that contribute to being happy. They were told either to describe five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week (the gratitude condition), or they did the opposite and described five daily hassles (the hassles condition) that they were displeased about.
Those in the gratitude condition reported fewer health complaints and even spent more time exercising than control participants did. Similar studies have shown improved emotions when someone who has a chronic illness focuses on an “attitude of gratitude” instead of feeling negative. Similarly, gratitude leads to lower levels of stress hormones.
Now that we know gratitude is good for you, it joins the list of things, including love and empathy that create a biochemical shift in the body. Since gratitude is a mental activity, it’s a powerful finding to show how something totally non-physical can alter the physical activity of the brain. The general lesson here is that the brain responds to positive input and sends life-enhancing messages to every cell in the body.
How can you activate the power of gratitude in your own life?
The 3 Stages of Gratitude
There are three stages of gratitude, each one more effective than the one before. These are:
- Feeling grateful for the good things in your life
- Expressing your gratitude to the people who have made your life better
- Adopting new behavior as a result of interacting with those who have helped you
All of us have experienced the first stage—we have felt grateful that something good has happened, often in the context of escaping a threat like a disease diagnosis that turns out to be a false alarm. To make this feeling more than a passing moment, you need to make the “attitude of gratitude” more continuous. Keeping a brief journal, as in the gratitude study, is all it takes to trigger the health benefits of gratitude—a good start for anyone.
Stage 2 is more challenging. It’s hard to reach out to someone else, especially because many people think that opening up and expressing your appreciation makes you more vulnerable. It’s easier to stay inside your shell. But when you express gratitude to someone else, an emotional bond is formed, and emotional bonding is one of the key traits of truly happy people. Some of the earliest mind-body studies showed how loneliness and isolation—the very opposite of bonding with others—led to decreased health and a higher risk of mortality. Now it’s time to reverse our focus and emphasize the positive side of the equation, putting emotional bonding high on the list of self-care.
Stage 3 is the most powerful because it changes people’s futures. When your gratitude leads to showing more sympathy, less judgment, and greater appreciation for life itself, you are setting the stage for years of positive reinforcement. By adopting gratitude as your default position, so to speak, you tell your brain that positive input is going to far outweigh negative input. Mixed signals lead to mixed results. By being consistent in your attitude of gratitude, you set down a blueprint that over time leads to brain changes with farseeing benefits.
Clearly, the way of gratitude is one of the most natural paths to wholeness because body, mind, and spirit are affected at every level almost effortlessly; give it a try.