“If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.”
While the American once-a-year gratitude ritual of Thanksgiving is better than nothing, if you’re serious about your wellbeing, you’d be wise to increase the frequency at which you feel and express gratitude.3
People who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, have more positive emotions and less anxiety, sleep better4 and have better heart health.5 Studies have also shown that gratitude can produce measurable effects on a number of systems in your body, including:
• Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine)
• Reproductive hormones (testosterone)
• Social bonding hormones (oxytocin)
• Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)
• Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)
• Stress hormones (cortisol)
• Blood pressure and cardiac and EEG rhythms
• Blood sugar
What Is Gratitude?
So what exactly is gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, Ph.D., one of the leading scientific experts on gratitude featured in the video above, gratitude has two key components:6
• It’s “an affirmation of goodness;” when you feel gratitude, you affirm that you live in a benevolent world
• It’s a recognition that the source of this goodness comes from outside of yourself; that other people (or higher powers, if you so like) have provided you with “gifts” that improve your life in some way
In Emmons’ view, gratitude is “a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
While there are as many reasons to be thankful as there are people in the world, one facet of life that many often forget to be thankful for (until it is too late) is their health. We tend to take our health for granted until we’re suddenly in the throes of pain or debilitating illness.
It goes back to the old adage that it’s really the little things that matter most, and if you cultivate gratitude for the little things, it will foster a more deep-seated sense of happiness.
After all, if you have good health and all your mental faculties intact, you also have the prerequisite basics for doing something about the less satisfactory situations in your life.
How to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Like a muscle, your sense of gratitude can be strengthened with practice. One way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal where you write down what you’re grateful for each day. This can be done in a paper journal, or you can download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.7
In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal reported exercising more, and had fewer visits to the doctor compared to those who focused on sources of aggravation.8,9 As Dr. Alison Chen suggests in a recent Huffington Post article,10 creating a nightly gratitude ritual can be a powerful strategy.
“My colleague has a bedtime routine with her [3-year-old] and it includes recognizing what you are grateful for. When this part of the night comes, you can’t shut him up,” Chen writes.
“There are so many things that we take for granted and when you listen to the long list that a child can come up with you realize the possibilities for gratefulness are limitless!
Take a couple minutes each day to stop and reflect; taking regular pause is an excellent way to bring about more feelings of gratefulness in your life.”
Avoiding getting sucked into bad news is the other side of this equation. You may have to limit your media exposure from time to time if you find it difficult to maintain a positive outlook in the face of worldly horrors.
As Chen states, “Most cover stories are meant to shock, terrify and sweep you into a whirlwind of emotions. They don’t always feature the truth.”