Health benefits of gratitude: How to make practical changes

November 10, 2021
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With the holidays creeping up on us, it can be easy to focus on your ever-growing wish list. But two studies have found that showing some gratitude may be the best gift you can give yourself.

How gratitude impacts your relationships and your brain

Researchers from the University of Southern California did an experiment that revealed gratitude is good for your mental health and has a positive impact on your relationships.

The researchers shared stories with 26 people about the kindness Holocaust survivors experienced from strangers, everything from tangible gifts like food to intangible gifts like emotional support.

They asked the experiment participants to put themselves in the survivors’ shoes, imagining how they would feel receiving similar gifts.

Parts of the brain associated with moral emotion and being social lit up.

The experiment showed feeling grateful makes us realize we are not alone. Gratitude helped bridge the gap between parts of the brain associated with “me” and “them.” It makes us more conscious of the people who help us, even in small ways.

Those good feelings you get when someone gives you a gift make you feel a part of a community that cares about you. On the flip side, it motivates you to do something equally kind for the community in the future.

When we feel grateful and those specific parts of the brain are stimulated, we become less stressed. Researchers found gratitude lit up the same part of the brain associated with “the pain relief associated with viewing a loved one.”

HEALTH BENEFITS of practicing gratitude

A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found being thankful for what you have could help you get some much needed shut eye.

Researchers asked more than 200 participants with chronic pain about a number of health issues, including depression symptoms and sleep issues.

They noticed a pattern in the data. People who expressed gratitude had a better quality night’s sleep. These participants also felt happier, experiencing fewer depression and anxiety symptoms.

Even their bodies were physically affected. They reported less inflammation and fatigue, which made them less susceptible to heart failure.

Ways to practice gratitude

So what are some practical ways to give thanks this holiday season?

Reverend Ute Schmidt, manager of spiritual services at Baystate Health, says there are smaller steps we can take to put gratitude into practice—but we also have to think big.

“For all the platitudes about it — like the encouragement to adopt “an attitude of gratitude” — gratitude is a very sacred concept. Gratitude allows a person to connect with something beyond themself, whether people, nature, or a higher power,” Schmidt said.

Write a thank you note

She said writing a thank-you note to someone who hasn’t been properly thanked for something they did makes the note-writer happier not just in the moment, but for up to a month afterward!

Expressing gratitude to another person also makes you feel more positive about that other person, and if that person happens to be your employee or your colleague or your supervisor will make the work culture and environment so much more enjoyable.

Include gratitude in everyday life

So what can we do to cultivate gratitude? Writing a thank-you note to someone is a great start.

“Even if you don’t have time to write things down, just thinking grateful thoughts about someone or something is likely to make you happier. Make a time each week or each day to literally count your blessings,” Schmidt said.

  • Write in a “gratitude journal.”
  • Start with seemingly simple things: Being grateful for sunshine, for a smile from a co-worker or stranger, for that cup of coffee or tea in the morning, for a good commute, for family, for friends and for a home.
  • For those who have spiritual or religious beliefs, meditating or praying with a focus on gratitude can also be very helpful.

“The Christian mystic Meister Eckhard said a long time ago, ‘If the only prayer we say in our life-time is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,’” Schmidt quoted.

Reach out to others

You may know people at work who exude a sense of gratitude. Seek them out for a chat.

Or start your morning huddle, staff meeting or lunch gathering with a simple question: “What are you grateful for today?”

Create a gratitude board/poster in your break room where people can express what they are grateful for on a particular day/shift/week.

“Thank you for reading!” Schmidt finished.

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