As we look back on a crazy (understatement, perhaps?) year, it can be challenging to conjure all the good that’s surfaced as we’ve stumbled through many surprises, uncertainties, and setbacks. How can we count blessings when everything feels bizarre and, quite frankly, backward?
Well, some good news, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), is when we experience “moments of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a grateful perspective is critical to sustaining our positive attitude—to energize, to heal, and to bring hope." At the same time, other studies show a mixed emotional experience rather than a purely positive one, which might be particularly motivating, leading to a bittersweet state and the behaviors it elicits. Both perspectives explain how practicing gratitude leads to positive outcomes (e.g., prosociality, health-promoting behavior), lending support to the age-old wisdom that gratitude is indeed a virtue.
What Is Gratitude?
"The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings," as stated in Harvard Health Publishing.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and a leading researcher on the science of gratitude, shares with the UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, “First, it's an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we've received."
Secondly, he explains, "We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge 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."
And finally, "Gratitude is an outer expression of inner humility" says Amit Sood, M.D., in his book The Mayo Clinic—Guide to Stress-Free Living. These are some of the definitions by which this powerful action is described.
To better understand gratitude, leading researchers Michael McCullough, Robert Emmons, and Jo-Ann Tsang layout four conditions that give rise to feelings of gratitude shared in The Mayo Clinic—Guide to Stress-Free Living (pg. 101).
- You receive something of value.
- Sharing it required effort by the giver.
- It was shared intentionally, not accidentally.
- It's shared without a specific reason or agenda.
Additionally, you feel grateful for not just what people do, but for who they are.
What Good Is Gratitude?
Dr. Emmons shares in his talk with the Greater Good Science Center the following about its benefits:
- It allows us to celebrate the present.
- Gratitude blocks toxic emotions (envy, resentment, regret, depression).
- Grateful people are more stress resilient.
- Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth.
Dr. Emmons explains, "Gratitude works because it allows individuals to celebrate the present and be active participants in their own lives. By valuing and appreciating friends, oneself, situations, and circumstances, it focuses the mind on what an individual already has rather than something that's absent and is needed."
If that isn't enough, the below list of scientific research from the UC Davis Medical Center shares some goodness-seeking findings on our health too!
- By journaling in a gratitude diary for two weeks, it produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent) in healthcare practitioners.
- Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).
- Practicing gratitude led to a 7-percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure.
- Two gratitude activities (counting blessings and gratitude letter writing) reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over six months.
- Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25 percent when people are keeping a gratitude journal.
- A daily gratitude practice can slow the effects of neurodegeneration (as measured by a 9-percent increase in verbal fluency) that occurs with increasing age.
- Grateful people have 16 percent lower diastolic blood pressure and 10 percent lower systolic blood pressure than those less grateful.
- Grateful patients with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure were 16 percent less depressed, 20 percent less tired, and 18 percent more likely to believe they could control their illness symptoms than those less grateful.
- Older adults administered the neuropeptide oxytocin showed a 12-percent increase in gratitude compared to those given a placebo.
- Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88 percent of suicidal inpatients and increased optimism levels in 94 percent of them.
- Grateful people (including people grateful to God) have between 9-13 percent lower levels of hemoglobin A1c, a key marker of glucose control that plays a significant role in the diagnosis of diabetes.
- Gratitude is related to a 10 percent improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76 percent of whom had insomnia, and 19 percent lower depression levels.
As you can see, gratitude is a powerful practice for producing peace, happiness, and contentment. As you cultivate gratitude, it gradually becomes a way to help you focus on what we have rather than what you lack—it's a skill that can be developed with practice. Try one of the three exercises below, provided by the Greater Good Science Center to help you cultivate an attitude of gratitude:
- Three Good Things: A way to tune into the positive events in your life.
- Gratitude Letter: Write a letter expressing thanks and deliver it in person.
- Give It Up: Savor something more by taking a break from it.”
In finding ways to be grateful for the past, present, and future, you can lighten your load of fear while paving the way for more joy and happiness. Practicing gratitude can relieve your mind by offering a healthy alternative to its ruminating tendencies. One of the easiest and most rewarding practices you can do supporting the age-old wisdom that gratitude truly is a virtue.
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