The Science of Gratitude

How Being Grateful Can Improve Your Health and Happiness

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Do you want more from your life? Greater happiness? Better health? Deeper relationships? Increased productivity?

It’s simple: Be grateful.

We all have a tendency to focus on the things that we don’t have. We think we’d be happy if only we had that new car or a bigger house or a designer dress. We look at someone else’s life, and we covet the things they have that we do not. But that feeling of dissatisfaction isn’t a good motivator; it doesn’t spur us on to work harder in the way more positive inspiration does. It just makes us unhappy and disappointed with what we do have. I have certainly been guilty of this at times in my life. Instead of being thankful for what I do have, I focus on all of the things I want.

A regular gratitude practice can have a dramatic impact on your outlook on life. And it can start small: Instead of taking so much for granted, notice and identify the things for which you are grateful, such as going for an early morning walk, taking a long, hot shower, enjoying a candle-lit dinner for two, or sitting by a crackling fire on a cold winter night. Feelings of gratitude are both an affirming of the good things in one’s life and an acknowledgement that, as Robert Emmons writes in his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.” Gratitude is not about a comparison with others nor is it an acknowledgement that other people are worse off than you. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your own life.

You may be surprised by how quickly you find yourself happier and more content when you begin, but it’s not in your head. Clinical studies have shown that the practice of gratitude can have significant and long-lasting positive effects on our lives. Feelings of gratitude activate the regions of the brain that produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that allow chemical signals to pass from one nerve cell to the next. Serotonin affects mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, memory, and body temperature, and low serotonin levels are connected to anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Dopamine affects movement, emotional response, and one’s ability to feel pleasure; low dopamine levels are associated with low motivation, vulnerability to addictions, and decreased motoric function. In the same way that these neurotransmitters can be enhanced by antidepressants, gratitude practice has a natural antidepressant effect, for the following benefits:

Good mental health

Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism. A gratitude practice helps to protect us from the destructive impulses of envy, greed and resentment. People who experience gratitude also cope more effectively with stress. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, according to an Italian study.

Improved relationships

Gratitude makes us nicer, more trusting, more social, and more appreciative people. As a result, it helps us to deepen our existing relationships. Feeling grateful toward your partner—and vice versa—can improve many aspects of your relationship, including feelings of connectedness and overall satisfaction.

Better health and physical fitness

A gratitude practice has been shown to lead to greater health including improvements in exercise patterns. In general, people who are more thankful in life also take better care of themselves by engaging in healthy activities and being more likely to seek help for any medical concerns.

Better sleep

A gratitude practice has been shown to be associated with improved sleep. Feeling grateful helps you fall asleep faster and sleep for longer durations of time, and it can improve overall quality of sleep. One study showed that as little as 15 minutes writing in a gratitude journal before bed helped quiet racing thoughts and decrease worry for a sounder night’s sleep. Studies also show that a short gratitude meditation prior to bedtime may also help you to sleep better.

Improved work performance

Gratitude can have a major impact on achieving your career goals; a grateful attitude has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on decision-making capabilities. Further, gratitude leads to happiness, and studies have shown that happy people are up to 12% more productive. Gratitude at work is a two-way street—not only will it improve your work, but it will also impact the work of those around you. A study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when people receive thanks for their work, they are inspired to work that much harder on their next tasks. So take the time to both be thankful and to say thanks, and you will see a real change in your business life.

How To Get Started

Make gratitude a regular habit by trying the ideas below—they require only a small investment of time:

Take time to notice the things for which you are grateful

Nature. People. Community. Shelter. Pets. Everyday comforts like a hot bath or a good meal. You notice so much more when you focus on feeling grateful for what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t have.

Start a gratitude journal

Every day, write down at least five good things in your life. Make a conscious effort to identify the things that bring you joy. This practice makes it more likely that you will notice them as they happen. By writing each day, you will begin to magnify and expand on sources of goodness. Keep the journal in one place—perhaps on your nightstand—and set time aside to journal time on a daily basis—shortly after rising or just prior to going to sleep.

Practice gratitude rituals

The ritual can be brief, such as a short blessing over food on the table or a daily acknowledgement to family members as to how precious they are to you. Remember, rituals take focus and dedication to build, especially at the beginning. Keep in mind that you are making a mindful choice to start a gratitude practice; your dedication will support your goal of achieving greater happiness, well-being, and more.

A gratitude practice can be as short as five minutes per day, but those few minutes can be transformative in helping you to live your best life! And Just like any other skill, gratitude requires practice. The good news is that once you start identifying things to be grateful for, your brain automatically starts seeking more things to be grateful for. So make gratitude a habit today that will pay dividends for a long time to come for a happier and healthier you.

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