The art of practicing daily gratitude has been shown to greatly increase happiness and positive emotions. An article from happify.com states, “people who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.” What exactly is gratitude though and how can you really manifest gratitude in your life?
Gratitude has been defined in many different ways and from a scientific perspective, it is not only an action but a positive emotion. More than being thankful, it is allowing space for deeper appreciation for someone or something. With this deeper appreciation people are able to truly acknowledge the goodness in their lives. Gratitude not only helps us appreciate what is valuable and meaningful in our lives, but also plays a key role in social relationships. Since gratitude is a social emotion that allows us to recognize things others have done for us without the need for anything in return. A sense of selflessness is in the act of giving and kindness becomes the motivating force since it is a gift and not an exchange for goods. At this point of gift giving, kindness and selflessness gratitude can truly be felt and expressed for another individual and about one’s life. Very minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift, but as Dr. Robert Emmons (a great researcher of gratitude) says that gratitude: “has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more.”
Some good synonyms to take into account when wrapping your head around gratitude or beginning a daily gratitude practice are acknowledgement, appreciativeness and thankfulness. Emmons goes on to explain that there are two main stages of gratitude: 1. The acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life and 2. Recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. With the second stage, your gratitude practice can start expanding out into the world with thankfulness reflecting outwards from yourself and your own life, letting in gratitude for nature, animals and the world we live in.
There are many ways to bring gratitude into your life. A helpful way to increase your daily practice and therefore train your brain to more easily drop into a place of thankfulness is to start your own gratitude journal. When thinking of, or writing down things you are thankful for, get as detailed as you can. This allows the little things to go noticed and be appreciated just as much as the bigger broader categories. It is good to verbally express those things you appreciate as a way to build positive relationships with friends, partners, co-workers, family members, maybe even a stranger at the grocery store that has just helped you find the coconut oil or shared their coupon with you.
For some more ideas on ways to increase or start your daily gratitude practice, the Psychiatry MMC (Matrix Medical Communications) published a table in November 2010 on the psychological strategies that may enhance feelings of gratitude. Here are the strategies they listed:
Try taking some of these ideas that appeal to you and incorporate them into your daily or weekly routine.
What happens when you start incorporating these gratitude practices in your life? There are many studies that test different outcomes of how gratitude impacts our lives in a positive way. McCullough in 2002, McCullough, Tsang & Emmons in 2004, Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley & Joseph in 2008 and Wood, Maltby, Stewart and Linley in 2008 all performed studies showing that expressing gratitude can “improve your overall sense of well-being: grateful people are more agreeable, more open and less neurotic.” Wood, Joseph & Maltby in 2008 found that gratitude decreases depression and enhances life satisfaction. In 2003, DeShea and in 1998, Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd found that “people who express their gratitude tend to be more willing to forgive others and less narcissistic.” Algoe in 2008 and Algoe, Gable & Maisel in 2010 showed that “giving thanks to those who have helped you, strengthens your relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance, as well as relationship connection and satisfaction.” Other studies show that people have a stronger sense of self-control which allows us to make better life choices and be healthier and more financially stable people. A study by DeSteno in 2014 found that “self control significantly increased when subjects chose gratitude over happiness and feeling neutral.”
What about physical changes due to letting gratitude be a part of your way of thought? Recent research in 2015 showed that “patients with heart failure, who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep and better moods thus dramatically reducing their symptoms heart failure after only 8 weeks.” There have been multiple studies done on just the improvement of sleep and a gratitude practice. In a study by Wood, he determined, “higher levels of gratitude predicted better subjective sleep quality and duration and a study posted in Applied Psychology:Health and Well-Being in 2011 said “writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.” Krause in 2006 proved gratitude (specifically towards a higher power) reduces levels of stress and Kashdan & Breen in 2007 showed that practicing gratitude significantly reduces levels of depression and anxiety. One of the ways studies have proven the reduction of stress through gratitude was done by McCraty in 1998 showing a mean 23% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after test subjects were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions.” 80% of the participants exhibited an increased coherence in heart rate variability patterns, also indicating reduced stress. Not only can it reduce stress, but it could also help with dealing with trauma. A study published by Behavior Research and Therapy in 2006 found that “Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).” And another study in 2003 found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11th.”
Clearly, there are some amazing benefits to training the mind to drop into a place of gratitude throughout your life. Studies (fMRI-functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain-scanning and other more subjective testing) show the more you practice gratitude the more your brain will adapt to this way of thinking and feeling. It is similar to exercise and weight training in that regard, you are strengthening and building a “gratitude muscle” within your brain. This can help offset negative feedback loops one has created in their brain and improve their overall quality of life.
About the author: Crystal Jancovic, L.Ac is co-founder of Lakewood Community Acupuncture in Lakewood, Colorado, which is the first non-profit community acupuncture clinic in the state. She believes fully in offering affordable healthcare to her community and becoming an active community member through supporting local businesses, growing her own food with her family, attending community events and keeping her patients healthy and happy.