What better time to talk about the benefits of a regular gratitude practice than on a holiday that celebrates giving thanks? Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can help us feel happier, more optimistic and appreciative. We are less overcome by stress, which is then seen as more of a challenge than a threat. Our self-worth rises when we feel the hands that support us. Recognizing our own blessings, we are inspired to be more compassionate and generous to others.
By feeding our generosity, gratitude can, in turn, have great physical benefits as well. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician and lifestyle expert, helping others activates the brain’s pleasure center, causing dopamine production to rise. The resulting endorphin rush can decrease the sensation of pain, bolster the immune system, lower blood pressure, increase energy levels, reduce stress and lead to longer and more refreshing sleep. A study of nuns who had gratitude journals when they were young also found that they lived almost seven years longer than those who didn’t have a regular gratitude practice.
Some even suggest a steady dose of gratitude is as effective for stabilizing mood as medication and therapy. Said positive psychology professor Martin E.P. Seligman, who established The Positive Neuroscience Project: “Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement, and resilience, and can buffer against depression and anxiety.” In an Authenttic Happiness study of several hundred people who practiced gratitude and counted their blessings regularly for six months more than 90 percent of participants felt happier after the course, and the majority of those who felt depressed prior to starting the practice felt less depressed after doing so.
A leading expert on gratitude and psychology professor at UC-Davis, Robert. A. Emmons, Ph.D., defines gratitude as an affirmation of goodness in our lives and the discovery and recognition of where that goodness comes from, outside our selves. Gratitude is not a denial of the real problems, burdens and hassles in our lives. Instead, it’s the conscious decision and action to seek out and acknowledge the benevolent goodness and abundance we do have.
Emmons say gratitude helps to block the toxic, happiness thieves of resentment, envy and regret. He argues that one cannot feel both gratitude and envy at the same time. When you are grateful for what you have, you cannot resent someone for what you do not have.
Looking at the big picture view of our lives encourages us see where there is light. When we become more present to the positive—a challenge certainly, when the majority of the news fed to us is about corruption, murder, disease and natural disasters—the brain experiences a “happiness advantage,” where energy levels, creativity and intelligence also rise, says positive psychology educator Shawn Anchor. Gratitude encourages the brain to scan the world first for what’s positive, which allows us to view life and take on its various challenges in an entirely different way.
Gratitude Takes Daily Practice
In Attitudes of Gratitude, M.J. Ryan says “A pessimist is someone who has exercised the muscles of negativity and lack till they are strongly habitual, while an optimist is a person who has development thankfulness and a can-do attitude until these are second nature. We all have a choice of which muscles we want to strengthen. With practice, we can become joy-filled participants in the game of life, thankful to do our part and relishing in the sheer pleasure of play.”
So how do we strengthen the muscles of joy and optimism? We can start by recording things for which we are grateful on a daily basis. There are many reasons why keeping is a gratitude journal is so powerful and beneficial. Anchor says that when one writes about a positive experience he or she has had in the past 24 hours, it allows the brain to relive that experience, extending its affirmative effects.
In an article about gratitude, Emmons wrote:
In our studies, we often have people keep gratitude journals for just three weeks. And yet the results have been overwhelming. We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
Getting Specific With Gratitude
It turns out the more specific you are with your gratitude, the better. “If you want the most ROI for your gratitude practice, the dividends are in the details,” said marketing and lifestyle expert Marie Forleo in a recent vlog entry. “Research shows that if we want the most bang for our gratitude buck, we have got to get specific. That means way more depth and less breadth.”
Forleo shared the results of a 10-week University of Southern California study on journaling, which documented three different types of gratitude journaling. One group had the task of writing down five general things they grateful for each day. Another group took a more selfish perspective, writing how they were better off than other people. The last group picked one specific thing a day for which they were grateful and wrote five sentences about that thing. This group was “more elated, excited and alert than the other groups, and less tired, sad and lethargic.”
Thus, to say, “I’m grateful for my job,” isn’t going to cut it. It doesn’t get to the heart of why your work is so meaningful and appreciated by you. In my case, as a health coach:
1. I am grateful that I have a career I am passionate about and that I love.
2. I am grateful to do the type of work where I can constantly learn and grow, and in which I am regularly challenged.
3. I am grateful I have the financial, emotional and technical support that allows me to grow my business from the ground up.
4. I am grateful I can use those difficult and challenging experiences I’ve been through and learned from to help counsel and educate others.
5. I am grateful to share stories that inspire others and that lifts people up instead of tearing them down.
Thank You, More Please
One of the indie films that touched me deeply in recent years is Happythankyoumoreplease. In one powerful scene, the main female character, who is surviving cancer, is talking with a potential suitor about an enlightening experience she had in a cab the year before. “Bliss is your birthright,” The cab driver said to her. “You have great potential in this lifetime. The key to your life is gratitude. You do not give enough thanks.”
When she asked him how and when to do so, he answered, “Simply: say, Thank you…All the time. Right now.” The cab driver told the woman that after expressing her gratitude, she should also say, “More please.” He told her that with gratitude, the universe is eternally abundant.
It is easy to focus on the things that are going wrong in our lives and in the world. It takes a certain humility and grace to refocus on how we are blessed each day. When life is a daily struggle and it feels as if everything is falling apart around you, it takes thinking outside the box to recognize where you are being supported and who is affirming you.
Yet, I have found in my practice that the more I seek for the good and positive things in my daily life, the more good and positive things come to me. Like begets like. Gratitude begets abundance. Particularly on this Thanksgiving, let us hold close to our hearts the many examples of human kindness and compassion, selflessness and solidarity—especially in the face of hardship and tragedy. Even as we face our struggle and setbacks, may these people inspire us to seek out happiness and to express gratitude for our own daily blessings!