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Gratitude has become quite the buzzword over the years. We see it everywhere, from journals to social media and T-shirt memes to posters in medical office buildings. There’s a good reason for this.
Simply put, the simple practice of being grateful—even for the small things—is good for your physical and mental health.
Gratitude as Daily Practice
Various studies have shown that practicing gratitude has the ability to change the way our brains and our bodies adapt to the world around us. The biggest reason is simply that “Our brains are designed to problem-solve rather than appreciate. And we often must override this design to reap the benefits of gratitude.”
An article published by the Mayo Clinic shares that “Studies have shown that feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood, and immunity. Gratitude can also decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain, and risk of disease. If there were a pill that could do this, we’d be taking it daily.”
The good news is that gratitude is something that we can practice daily as a way to circumvent biology. In other words, if we wake up in the morning feeling a sense of dread about our jobs, musculoskeletal pain, or other stressors, we can choose to focus on one thing that we’re grateful for to keep in our awareness—and that thing we’re grateful for can override our more difficult emotions, at least temporarily.
Whatever it is that brings you a sense of wonder, contentment, well-being, joy, or awe, you can seize it as a catalyst for participating in life. This could come in the form of snuggling with a beloved pet, watching the birds and the critters at the outdoor feeder, or talking with a loved one. Cooking a healthy, tasty meal, taking a group exercise class, or watching the sunrise in the morning are other ideas to jump-start our “gratitude muscle.”
Gratitude Changes Biology
It’s important to understand that behavior changes biology.An article from Today shares: “when we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered, and that can have protective benefits on the body, including decreasing cortisol levels and perhaps increasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel so good.” That’s why it’s important to get out and about and to connect with others, especially when we least feel like it. It can help reset those pathways in the brain that tend to overthink and ruminate on things that are negative.
Similarly, Dr. Gail Saltz, psychoanalyst and assistant attending physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, states that gratitude can enhance relationships and improve one’s overall outlook on life: “We are often attracted to positive people; this positivity also makes one easier to get along with and talk to, even about difficult things. Being thankful for the important people in your life is more likely to be reciprocated. Mutual appreciation for each other often results in a more satisfying relationship.”
Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, asserts that “the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects on a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and facilitate more efficient sleep.” Additional studies found that people who were more grateful actually had better heart health, specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.
“They showed a better well-being, a less depressed mood, less fatigue, and they slept better,” said the study’s author, Paul J. Mills. “When I am more grateful, I feel more connected with myself and with my environment. That’s the opposite of what stress does.”
As the holidays approach, it’s normal to have an inclination toward appreciating things in life, especially family, friends, health, and well-being. But we can extend this practice to other aspects of our lives the whole year through. A grateful perspective has a multitude of benefits that work at anytime, anywhere. Not just the holidays.