By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW
Gratitude is a hot topic on the self-improvement scene. It’s not new. Philosophers have historically recognized the importance of gratitude as have religious and spiritual movements. Philosophers have suggested that gratitude is one of the most important human emotions for the success of society. And religious and spiritual thinkers have suggested that it is a crucial aspect of religious and spiritual life.
We’ve heard Oprah Winfrey for years promoting an “attitude of gratitude” and gratitude journaling. Gratitude is an important part of psychology research and especially positive psychology. Modern psychology research confirms that gratitude is an important social emotion that can benefit the lives people.
By definition, gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has, as opposed to, for what one wants. People often associate gratitude with saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift.
But, gratitude is more than feeling thankful for something, it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) which produces longer lasting increased levels of well-being and may even indirectly lead to increased physical and mental health. Feeling gracious can be intrinsically rewarding. Simply being grateful for being alive is a great way to motivate oneself to seize the day and is a strong motivator to some people.
We all know there is a link between the mind and body. Gratitude has been associated with activity in areas of the brain that deal with morality, reward, and value judgment. When appreciation is expressed, the brain triggers a biological response in the recipient’s brain, including a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine. The feeling of appreciation when we are grateful, helps us to have healthier minds and with that healthier bodies and increasing our overall well-being, happiness, energy, resiliency, and health.
A gratitude practice is associated with improved kidney function, reduced blood-pressure and stress-hormone levels, a stronger heart, reduced inflammation, improved sleep, and better moods. People who focus on gratitude in their lives, show significantly more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise. Gratefulness is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.
You’ll be a nicer person. Gratitude is related negatively to depression and positively to life satisfaction. Thus, practicing gratitude can decrease levels of depression and anxiety, and reduce stress.
It’s also shown that gratitude is a social emotion which can create a greater social circle of good. When people appreciate the goodness that they’ve received, they feel compelled to give back. While the recipient of gratitude may not reciprocate directly back, but in turn, may lend a favor to a third party, effectively expanding a network of good.
So, when you express gratitude toward a spouse, a colleague, or a friend, he or she feels grateful in return, and the back-and-forth continues.
What’s more, thanking your benefactors makes them feel good about the kind acts that they’ve done, so they want to continue doing them, not only for you but also for others. Gratitude is also a powerful tool for strengthening interpersonal relationships. People who express their gratitude tend to be more willing to forgive others and be less narcissistic. Studies have shown that coupled people who feel more appreciated by their partners are more likely to appreciate their partners in return.
You can’t be grateful and resentful at the same time.
We can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. Establishing a gratitude ritual, whether it’s a morning meditation of what you’re thankful for, a bedtime counting of blessings, or a gratitude journal. This concerted, consistent effort to notice and appreciate the good things flowing to us changes us for the better on many levels. First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life.
We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it not just worth living, but rich with texture and detail. Gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness also lie outside the self. We can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world as well. We recognize not only the goodness in our lives, but also to who or what has enriched our lives so that we could be happy.
Research has shown that one of the best ways to hone in on the people and the experiences we appreciate is through writing in a gratitude journal. Recording our thoughts, by hand or electronically, helps us focus them. I often give my negative thinking clients the homework assignment to write down 3 things each evening that are positive things that happened or they’ve noticed during the day; things they are grateful for. Writing things downs allows them to reflect on later if they wish and to truly savor what they appreciate. It is also a moment of recognition.
I suggest they write freely as no one else has to see their list or journal. This means don’t get hung up on the grammar or structure. This is often challenging activity for my negative thinking clients at first. They start by striving for perfection or big, amazing accomplishments or events and this perfectionism gets in the way. I make sure to tell them that what is positive doesn’t need to be big.
They can be grateful for the beautiful day, the movie they saw, the talk with a friend, the fun walk with their dog, the good hair day, the good attitude they had that morning. Everything counts! This encourages people to see the blessings, not just the curses. It’s a practice to force the positive thoughts to come with the hope they will start to have these thoughts more naturally. And, to be able to reframe negative events.
People can also practice this with their children by having them take a moment before bed-time where you ask them to think about something they’re grateful for. Set a good example by sharing what you’re grateful for too!
Gratitude is a powerful tool for increasing well-being and it costs absolutely nothing to practice. Anyone can easily be grateful in their lives.
In the pursuit of happiness and life satisfaction, gratitude is showing to have a direct and long-lasting effect. Thus, the more gratitude we experience, the happier our lives will be. Being thankful can give us the resolve we need to make better choices in our lives and for the ones we love.