Once a year we set aside a day as a nation to reflect on all of the reasons we have to be grateful (yes, it’s not just about turkey and stuffing!). Many of us are well aware of the spiritual and mental benefits of cultivating gratitude in our lives, but it turns out the benefits of gratitude can even extend to physical health.
Truthfully, it’s not always easy to look past our problems and express gratitude. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult! So is it worth the extra effort? How do we cultivate the habit of gratitude in daily life, even when it’s hard?
Why Is It So Hard to Be Grateful?
It sounds simple but it turns out there are biological reasons gratitude doesn’t come so easily.
If you’re reading this on a phone or laptop, your living conditions are better than the majority of the world. You probably got to eat today, likely even food you chose and enjoyed, and you probably have adequate clothing. Yet it’s easy to dwell on the financial problems, the one negative comment on a blog post (*ahem*), or the one thing we wish we could fix about our bodies.
This makes sense from a biological standpoint but makes gratitude difficult. We’re wired to pay attention to things that could be potentially negative or harmful as a survival instinct, but in a world of constant input from the internet and social media, this instinct can backfire.
The Science Behind Positive Psychology
Several studies have shown there may be a genetic component to our positive emotions (or lack thereof). The COMT gene helps us recycle dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that helps with a positive mood. Study participants with one version of the COMT gene reported higher levels of gratitude, while those with a different version of the gene had less feelings of gratitude.
Scientists have identified several different gene variations that may play a role in how we feel gratitude and our mental well-being. They’ve also discovered that grateful people have more brain activity in certain areas. On the other side, toxic emotions like envy, narcissism, and materialism inhibited people from feeling grateful.
The Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “If only I had ___ I’d be happy.” Or “if only I didn’t have to deal with ___ I’d be happy,” but this is a vicious cycle…
Psychologist Shawn Anchor explains in this great TED talk that gratitude and happiness are the first steps, not the end result. By choosing to be grateful and happy (whether we feel that way at the time or not), we’re literally choosing better physical health and mental health.
How does this work? Brain studies show grateful feelings increase our sense of well-being and relaxation. Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD, explains:
“Heartfelt” emotions—like gratitude, love, and caring—produce sine waves or coherent waves radiating to every cell of the body, all determined through technology that measures changes in heart rhythm variation and measurements of coherence. Research shows that with “depleted” emotions—like frustration, anger, anxiety, and insecurity—the heart-rhythm pattern becomes more erratic and the brain recognizes this as stress. This in turn creates a desynchronized state, raising the risk of developing heart disease and increased blood pressure, weakening the immune system, impairing cognitive function, and blocking our ability to think clearly.”
Over time, this more relaxed state can lead to improved hormone balance and immune function and even decreased rates of disease. The practice of gratitude has positive effects on our nervous system, romantic relationships, self-esteem, and even sleep quality.
The American Psychological Association backs this up. They found that higher gratitude scores in subjects related to better mood, better sleep, more positive health-promoting habits, less inflammation, and improved heart health, including lower blood pressure.
How Gratitude Helps
Even when a problem does come along, being grateful can still help. It’s no secret that stress has a negative impact on health, but research is finding that an “attitude of gratitude” can be a successful antidote to even serious external stressors. In one study, cancer patients who were optimistic about their symptoms and outcomes were less likely to experience thickening arteries than those who had negative emotions.
We all go through tough times at some point, but being grateful through adversity has positive benefits. Researchers at the University of Connecticut looked at people who had already had a heart attack. Those who were able to see the benefit and be thankful for the experience (even if they didn’t like it) were less likely to have another heart attack.
Personally, I discovered that once I learned how to grow from and even be thankful for what I learned as a result of trauma it helped my healing process.
The best news is, that being grateful is absolutely free and always available to us! We just have to make daily gratitude a habit.
An Attitude of Gratitude: Making It Stick
Thankfully, cultivating a grateful attitude is possible, and it can be one of the easiest (and cheapest) changes in our healthcare plan! A few simple changes can help make gratitude a habit:
A Daily List
Every day I try to make a list of a few things that I’m especially grateful for that day. Whether it’s little things like my garden or the dishwasher to big things like my children and loved ones. I’ve found this helps to keep the focus on the many blessings in my life.
When I do it first thing in the morning, it sets the tone for the day and helps me stay positive and cheerful. I’ll also ask my kids at the end of the day what 3 things they were grateful for.
Letter of Gratitude
Once in a while, I try to write letters to friends and family members thanking them for their influence in my life and detailing the reasons I’m grateful for them. Science shows that even sending thank you cards for various reasons has a positive effect on our mood and the recipient’s mood.
Interestingly, one study showed that when kids wrote thank you cards to family members it did not increase their feelings of gratitude. So there may be a maturity component involved. Regardless, I always encouraged my kids to write thank you notes since it’s a good habit to thank others. When kids learn to express gratitude they report less envy and depression.
Acts of Kindness
Doing a small, unnoticed good deed each day can help boost our natural tendency to be grateful and look for the good in any situation. This could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating to a homeless shelter, or making a meal for someone going through a difficult time.
It can even be as simple as paying someone a sincere compliment on how nice their hair looks that day. You never know what small kindness can really make their day!
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Like an expanded version of the first suggestion, this is a place to regularly collect your thoughts. Review what went well in the day or how others blessed you that day. This would be a great time of year to start a family gratitude habit as well.
I’ve heard great things about this journal for kids and hope to do it in our family soon. One of the best ways I’ve found to communicate with my daughters is through journaling. The process helps them open up more about their experiences and feelings.
There are thousands of printables that focus on gratitude. Print some out and put them up around the house, or make your own with the kids! Sometimes we just need the visual reminder to retrain our thoughts and keep us reflecting on the positive.
Put the notes where you can easily see them, like on the fridge or the bathroom mirror.
Want some more ideas to cultivate gratitude? Our family loves this Gratitude Documentary!
Counting My Blessings
As Martha Washington said:
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”
So, if you’re grateful for anything today, please share it below in the comments! Five things I’m very grateful for today are:
- My family
- My home
- A good night’s sleep
- Access to healthy food
- You! I feel so blessed to get to “meet” all of the wonderful people and be part of this community. I’ve learned so much from all of you and am so encouraged that together we’re creating a more positive future for our kids.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board-certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What are you grateful for today? Share below!