Gratitude can make you healthier and happier. It’s science.
Does the simple act of saying “thanks” affect our well-being? Researchers say yes. Studies show that people who report higher levels of gratitude in their daily lives are more hopeful and physically healthy overall, feel fewer aches and pains, sleep better and have higher levels of self-esteem.
Some may wonder if the people in these studies simply have happier, better lives to begin with and are therefore able to be more grateful. Yet dozens of studies suggest a causal relationship between people who actively incorporate gratitude into their daily lives and improved physical and mental states. Even people undergoing large amounts of stress and trauma are able to reach greater levels of resiliency through gratitude practices, as noted in this 2006 study on Vietnam veterans.
Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of Biologic Psychology at Duke University Medical Center, says, “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” And I’m guessing no side effects either.
But beyond health benefits, many say the act of thanksgiving affects happiness. Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, discusses the correlation between gratitude and happiness in his book Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, claiming that people who practice gratitude are an astounding 25 percent happier than those who do not.
But how does it work? Do we just need to “feel thankful” in our hearts, or are there actions we need to take? Most of us love the idea of living a life filled with gratitude but don’t know how to incorporate it into our routines.
Here are six practical ways to cultivate gratitude daily.
Wake Up Grateful
Beginning your morning in a state of appreciation sets the tone for your day.
Prior to pulling off the covers, train your brain to think of all that you cherish. You might be grateful for your comfy pillow, for a restful night’s sleep, for your coworkers, for the bond with your pet, for a hot shower, for the nourishing, tasty breakfast you are about to eat, and on it goes.
Practice Present-Moment Gratitude
The opportunity to experience gratitude is available to us at every moment. Take time each day to set aside your list of things to do. Pause. Close your eyes. Breathe. Tune in. Pay attention to how your body feels and to what you’re actually experiencing at the present moment. For several minutes, think only of gratitude and how fortunate you feel. If your mind begins to wander, slowly bring it back to a place of thanks. Studies on happiness have determined that the more present you are in each moment, even when doing mundane tasks, the happier you will feel. It can also prevent frustration and help increase patience. Instead of getting agitated while sitting at a restaurant waiting for the other party to arrive, for example, focus on giving thanks in the moment. Perhaps you’re thankful for the aromas coming out of the restaurant’s kitchen, for an attentive server or for the friendship of the person who is running late.
Express Appreciation to Someone in Your Life
Whether through a phone call, text message, handwritten letter or in person, the act of thanking another human being is beneficial not only to the recipient but also to the giver. In fact, the act of thanking someone in writing can actually change the neural pathways in your brain. A study at Indiana University observed the brain scans of 43 subjects being treated for depression. The scans showed that a simple gratitude writing exercise of composing three letters of thanks was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude. When compared to the control group, subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural response in the medial prefrontal cortex immediately following the writing exercise and even three months later. In other words, gratitude begets gratitude.
While writing a heartfelt letter isn’t realistic on a daily basis, you could make a list of people you feel fortunate to have in your life. Once or twice per week or per month, choose someone from your list to write a note of deep appreciation to. How has their presence in your life influenced you? What have they helped you see? Who have they helped you become?
Give Thanks for Difficult Things
It’s easy to feel grateful when sitting around the table with family and friends on Thanksgiving, with a delectable feast in front of you. But where is gratitude those days when it seems everything is going wrong? Or in the midst of loss? Bringing ourselves to a place of gratitude in the middle of suffering can help us in our struggles, even if it’s just taking the edge off our suffering at times.
On difficult days, it’s helpful to pause and give thanks for very small things, especially if things aren’t going well with the large things in life, such as marriage or career or finances. Give thanks for your arms and legs, for the air you breathe, for the food you have. All these small leanings toward gratitude create a posture of gratefulness. Our brains are naturally prone to search for problems, so being grateful during tough times is challenging, but it does help us cope.
Take a Gratitude Walk
Set aside 20 to 30 minutes a day to walk through your neighborhood, a park or even the areas surrounding your workplace while on a lunch break. Places in nature work best, but you can choose any location. This practice is especially helpful when you’re feeling sad or anxious and want to shift into a different space.
Start your gratitude walk by noticing sensory details. How does the air feel against your skin? What sounds do you hear? What aromas fill the air?
As you continue, consider the many things for which you are grateful: the body through which you experience the world, the mind that offers understanding, emotions that allow you to feel, family and friends who love you (try to be specific and name them), your physical needs that are being met (food, shelter, clothing). Inhale and exhale slowly as you walk, allowing yourself to be grateful for even the air you breathe.
Journal before Bed
Besides providing sound sleep, journaling before bed allows you to keep a written record of your gratitude, which can be helpful to look at from time to time.
Long before researchers studied its beneficial effects, spiritual teachers have stressed the importance of gratitude in one’s life. Whether rabbi, priest, sage or sufi, spiritual wisdom leaders understand the human spirit’s need for reflection. In the 17th century, Dutch philosopher Rabbi Baruch Spinoza was one of the earliest recorded proponents of daily gratitude practices. He suggested that each day for a month, we reflect upon the following three questions:
1. Who or what inspired me today?
2. What brought me happiness today?
3. What brought me comfort and deep peace today?