Nurturing Gratitude for a Healthier You
Thanksgiving is a time when we show appreciation for our blessings and celebrate the bounties of delicious food with loved ones. Science suggests that it would be good for our mental and physical health to extend this practice of thankfulness throughout the year!
After dealing with the coronavirus pandemic for more than two years, we may feel dismayed and less likely to find things for which we are thankful. But you may want to give yourself a little nudge, says psychologist Lisa Arango of Florida International University.
“Gratitude is a choice,” she says. “[It] is noticing the good and recognizing where the good comes from, usually outside of ourselves. It doesn’t mean there is nothing bad or negative going on around us, it means that we are intentionally looking for the good.”
We can be thankful for something as simple as the warmth of the sun or a refreshing rainfall. This practice of intentionally looking for the good things in our lives may improve our mental and physical health. When we express gratitude, our brains release the crucial neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These happiness chemicals reduce stress and symptoms of depression and may bring a bevy of benefits to our physical health as well.
“Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health,” says Glenn Fox, neuroscientist, and expert on the science of gratitude at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
Here are a few ways we can build a practice of gratitude into our everyday lives.
Start a gratitude journal. Regularly write down things that you are thankful for. Be specific! Writing down “I am thankful for my brother’s regular, uplifting emails that bring me joy and strengthen our relationship” is better than “I’m thankful for my brother.” If possible, make this practice an analog practice with pen and paper. Research suggests that handwriting activates more emotional and cognitive areas of our brains. But at the same time, the best journal is one that you can easily use.
Turn your practice of gratitude outward. Write a letter thanking someone who has touched your life in a meaningful way. A University of Chicago study followed participants who wrote letters thanking someone, then followed up with the recipients to see what they thought of the letter. The study revealed that the participants undervalued the effect their letters of gratitude would have. Some were even worried that the letters would seem awkward!
“Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel,” said researcher Amit Kumar. Write your letter with the confidence that the recipient will receive it warmly and be thankful for your outreach! That’s spreading your joy and gratitude around. Recognizing the good that others bring into our lives also helps to activate the “reward” centers of our brains.
Make a mental thank you. No time to write? Think about something nice that someone did for you, and mentally thank them. Practice mindful meditation. Focusing on the moment and letting go of judgment may help you think of more things for which you are grateful. Or try repeating the phrase “thank you” to the universe with no specific person or thing in mind.
No matter how you choose to practice gratitude, it is a simple practice that may bring big benefits to your body and mind. What are you grateful for? Make a list! You just might feel better about life.