How Gratitude Heals the Body and the Soul
Experts on physical and mental well-being seem to be in agreement that expressing gratitude is a healing action: it promotes better sleep, decreases feelings of anxiety and depression, and can provide relief from chronic pain. In fact, studies demonstrate that people who actively verbalize their gratefulness for their jobs, families, and overall life experiences are less likely to develop drug dependency or have suicidal thoughts.
But why? How is thankfulness so powerful?
According to the University of Utah, something physically happens to your brain when you express gratitude: your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) decrease while oxytocin levels increase.
Oxytocin is the chemical that makes interpersonal connections feel so wonderful and meaningful. It’s released when we bond with the world around us, and it is known to lower blood pressure, decrease inflammation, and foster a sense of community.
On the more spiritual side of things, gratefulness nudges our focus away from negativity and gives us a happier perspective of things that damage our mental and emotional well-being.
People who choose to start their day with a session of thankful meditation— steady breathing coupled with phrases like “I am grateful for my job” and “I am happy to be alive”— report feeling generally more optimistic, peaceful, and focused. They are less likely to hold grudges and tend to have more emotional control than those who do not verbalize gratitude.
So all of this being said, how do you “practice” being thankful?
The first step is to realize that gratefulness is not just something that happens to you. It’s something you choose, every single day.
There are moments in life when gratitude comes naturally, like when we receive a gift or get a promotion. But more often than not, those moments don’t come as often as we’d like. We can fall into a state of discontent when we feel unappreciated or that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. And it’s true— life can be cruel and unfair, and it’s important to acknowledge and process our pain when it is.
But choosing gratitude is not a means of rejecting reality. It’s a decision to focus on what we do have and what we can control ***about our circumstances, rather than our lack.
A Harvard study by psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough made a beautiful, empowering discovery:
“One group [in the study] wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them… After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”
Notice that the shift in attitude was a result of a conscious effort to focus on the positives. I’m certain that those who were told to write about good things still experienced bad things during those 10 weeks. But as evidenced by this study (and several others), actively choosing to appreciate what brings us joy can be a useful tool for preserving our physical and emotional health.
Another key element of this study that we shouldn’t ignore is repetition. Participants were instructed to write their responses down on a regular basis, and that’s what paved the way for tangible change. The results are clear: consistent appreciation leads to more consistent happiness.
Making Gratitude a Habit
It’s widely understood that it takes around two months for a habit to form, and if you’ve ever learned an instrument or played a sport, you know that practice is crucial. So how do we “practice” being grateful? Here are some tips and tricks to implement into your daily (and hopefully life-long) routines:
Write It Down: Whether it’s lists or journal entries, archiving thankful thoughts gets them out of your head and gives them a place to live, for however long you want to keep them. And if you don't like using pen and paper, use your laptop or a voice recorder— whatever feels right!
Say It Out Loud: Chances are that you have a minute to yourself with no one else around. Use that brief time to verbalize what you’re grateful for out loud. It might even be helpful to memorize a short list to repeat as a mantra, prayer, or meditation phrase.
Tell The People You’re Grateful To: Don’t keep the gratitude to yourself! If you appreciate something your friend, family member, or coworker did for you, let them know. It’ll make their day (and probably make them feel thankful, too)!
Diffuse the Frustration: When you find yourself feeling dissatisfied or aggravated, that’s the perfect time to refocus on the positives. If you’re frustrated with your boss, remind yourself how grateful you are to have a job. If your children are driving you crazy, remember how lucky you are to have them in your life. Imagine the loss you would feel if that frustrating thing were suddenly gone… then appreciate the fact that it’s still around.
Change Your Language: The next time you find yourself saying “I have to do ____”, try reframing it as “I get to do ___”. (Try ”I get to buy a new fridge” instead of “I have to buy a new fridge”). This can help prevent you from taking certain people, objects, and experiences for granted by viewing them as privileges, not rights.
I hope you carry this message with you throughout this holiday season and into the new year. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity I have to communicate what I think and feel to so many people hungry for encouragement and education.