Gratitude is an expression or emotion of giving thanks and appreciation. Traditionally, gratitude has permeated religious texts and practices, and is regarded as a universal religious sentiment and virtue. However, it’s only in the last two decades that gratitude has become a popular subject in the fields of psychology, health and well-being. The neuroscience behind why gratitude makes us healthier, happier and more successful offers us fascinating insights into why gratitude and thanks-giving are worth celebrating.
Health Benefits of Gratitude:
Studies that systemically created gratitude in people, with gratitude journals and simple gratitude practices, have repeatedly shown that gratitude leads to an overwhelming array of psychological and physical health benefits. Some examples include; taking better care of your health by exercising more and making better food choices, better sleep, improved immune function, experiencing more joy, pleasure and happiness and being more alert, alive and awake. Wow! If there was a drug out there that offered all of this, without any side-effects, we’d all be rushing out to buy it! Yet, we all have access to this innate wisdom – we can start be setting an intention to extend our thanks-giving to our daily life and then commit to that intention by creating a regular gratitude practice.
How we can cultivate gratitude:
For sure, we can be grateful for the fact that practicing gratitude is simple, easy, enjoyable and free..
- Keep a gratitude journal – record what you’re grateful for, on a regular basis. Try think of at least one thing to be grateful for every day.
- Use Reminders. The two main reasons why people don’t regularly practice gratitude are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness. Reminders, especially visual reminders, can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude.
- Three Blessings exercise: 1) Before you go to bed, write down three good things that happened during the day, or three things that went well that day. 2) Then, write down why each of them happened. These do not need to be earth-shattering events; it could be that someone did something nice for you, or the way the sky looked on your way to work. It could be anything; this exercise may be a little difficult at first, but it gets much easier. The three blessings exercise is taken from Authentic Happiness, by Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and his studies show that this simple exercise increased a person’s happiness levels; even if done only for a week.
- Gratitude Visit: Think of someone who has done something important for you and who you never properly thanked. Take the time to think of exactly what they did for you, and what manifested as a result of their actions. Then meet with that person, or call or write if you cannot meet face to face, and share your gratitude and appreciation, as well as the details around what happened as a consequence of their action/s. This exercise is also from Dr Seligman’s positive psychology toolkit, and has been shown to be a very powerful exercise.
This post would be incomplete without a quick note on the WHY – why does gratitude translate into a wide variety of beneficial effects? A study from the National Institute for Health ‘examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects summoned up feelings of gratitude. They found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.’ This part of the brain controls eating and sleeping. It also influences your metabolism and stress levels. Plus, ‘feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine feels good to get, which is why it’s generally considered the “reward” neurotransmitter.’
The dopamine release coupled with the fact that your brain naturally seeks out evidence for what it already believes to be true, means that once you start seeing all that there is to be grateful for in your life you will naturally seek out more things to be grateful for. And so, the beautiful cycle begins.
I hope that you’ll choose one action step today, to implement and that you enjoy all the benefits that it will come with your gratitude practice. And if you’re interested in learning more about this, feel free to check out the references included below.
Thank you for reading!