In 1863 when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a federal holiday during a brutal war, he was onto something. The country was split, and both sides had suffered huge losses. While many on either side probably didn’t feel like giving thanks, maybe a day set aside to be grateful was just what the country needed.
Fast forward over 150 years later when research tells us that regular gratitude can improve relationships, improve our mental health, and possibly even improve our physical health. Lincoln may not have had scientific proof, but he seemed to instinctively know that gratitude is most important when things look bleak.
Whether you’re going through a hard time right now, have just come through one or are just headed into one, practicing gratitude regularly (not just one day a year) can give you the tools to be more resilient no matter what life throws your way.
It can change your perspective.
Seeing the big picture can help you get through adversity, but that can be easier said than done.
Pausing and reflecting on all you have to be grateful for can train your brain to be aware of the positive in your life, according to Ali O’Grady, founder of Thoughtful Human, a company that sells card series for people dealing with cancer, loss, or even becoming a parent.
“I lost my dad to colon cancer in 2011 and saw how much difficulty people had talking about it — cancer, death, depression, and grief in general,” O’Grady said. “It was incredibly difficult but, in time, I’ve been able to use this experience to provide an outlet to help others start these kinds of conversations.”
Gratitude doesn’t always come easily when you’re going through hardship. The key, though, is patience.
“You can know intellectually the things you should be grateful for, but it’s not something you can force,” O’Grady said. “Patience is important in the process — gratitude will show itself over time if you’re working at it.”
It can make you happier.
The actual act of expressing gratitude can improve your quality of life and wellbeing.
“It is challenging for negative emotions to survive with the consistent practice of expressed intentional and authentic gratitude,” said David Nico, PhD and founder of Nico Ventures, a health and medical consulting and investment firm. “To actively improve resilience and happiness, consider being more intentional with gratitude.”
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology backs Nico up on this. It looked at the benefits of a gratitude journal as well as verbally expressing gratitude to friends and family. Participants who practiced journaling their gratitude improved their mental health, and those that expressed their gratitude verbally had the most improvement overall.
“One way to fill the resilient tank, is to practice the art of intentional gratitude or set an intentional gratitude goal,” Nico said. “For example, instead of just saying a general thank you, communicate specifically why you are most thankful.”
It can make you healthier.
Exercise and diet aren’t the only ways to improve our physical health. A gratitude mindset can also be key to a healthy body.
By turning your attention to the good in your life, you may actually be improving your health, according to Melissa Deuter MD, owner and founder of Sigma Mental Health Urgent Care and author of Stuck in the Sick Role: How Illness Becomes an Identity.
“What seems to be definitely true is that when you practice gratitude, there is a calming of neurobiology and a turning down of the body’s production of stress hormones and fear responses,” Deuter said. “If I do a gratitude practice, my blood pressure may be lower. My risk for cancer, diabetes may be lower. My overall of anxiety and depression and even severity of more serious illness decrease because the gratitude practice turns down my stress response which improves my body’s immune response.”
One such study researching the effects of gratitude on health published in Psychosomatic Medicine showed that while depression was associated with higher levels of inflammation and cardiovascular strain, gratitude was associated with better cardiovascular function.
More research still needs to be done on the topic, but there is evidence that focusing on what we have to be grateful for can help our bodies be healthier.
It can improve your willpower.
Willpower is what helps many push through to success. It’s what helps you evaluate short term failure or even success from a long-term perspective, and it turns out that gratitude may play a role in that as well.
“Gratitude can foster long-term thinking and lead a person to make better decisions through improved willpower,” said Nick Hobson, co-founder of PsychologyCompass.com. “Failures in willpower are never a good thing, for anyone. But during deliberate moments of feeling gratitude (gratitude journaling, for instance) a person is training their ability to exercise patience….It’s a mind hack that makes a person pay attention to long-term successes rather than immediate gains.”
This kind of brain training can help you make better decisions, be more confident, and keep taking the right actions – even when success seems like it’s a long way off.
“If a person can have better willpower (via gratitude),” he said, “What will follow is they will be happier, more confident, more resilient, and equipped to make better lasting decisions.”