The Art (and Science) of Gratitude
This blog is a part of a special series observing Mental Health Awareness Month.
When I graduated from college, I started practicing gratitude. Every Thursday morning, I would reflect back on the previous week and jot down a list of about 20 things I was thankful for. Big things. Little things. Moments. People. I called it “Thursday Thanks” and would share it on my blog.
As the years passed, I got out of the habit. However, in December 2018, I unexpectedly found myself standing next to my dad’s hospital bed. He had suffered complications from a seizure and doctors were unsure if he was going to make it.
Facing every negative emotion imaginable, I decided to make gratitude a practice again. Every morning before I began my day, I made sure to write down a few things for which I was thankful: faith, coffee, the quiet in the house, my friends’ support, having a job to keep my mind occupied, Chick-fil-A sandwiches. I was thankful for Chick-fil-A sandwiches quite a bit.
The Power of Gratitude
Harvard medicine defines gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.” For years, doctors and scientists have been studying how this affects us mentally and physically. It may not be a miracle drug, but they all agree that it does wonders for our health. It has been linked to lower blood pressure, better sleep, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and a greater sense of overall happiness.
Take a few examples from well-documented studies:
- One study showed stress hormones like cortisol are 23% lower in grateful people.
- A study of stressed-out law students who classified themselves as “optimistic” had more disease fighting cells in their body.
- A study at UC San Diego studied men and women with varying levels of heart disease. Some patients were asked to write down three things for which they were thankful a few times a week. After eight weeks, those who practiced gratitude experienced reductions in inflammatory biomarkers and reduced cardiac risk.
- Adults seeking mental health counseling for anxiety and depression were asked to write a thank-you letter every week for three weeks. These adults experienced significantly better mental health than those who didn’t write letters up to 12 weeks later.
How Gratitude Works
Scientists point to gratitude’s effect on the brain as the reason for its massive benefits. For example, brain scans have shown that gratitude has a positive effect on the hypothalamus: the region of the brain that controls essential bodily functions necessary for good health such as eating, sleeping, stress regulation and metabolic rate.
Researchers have also discovered that gratitude activates the part of the brain responsible for releasing “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. This triggered response has the same effect as Prozac, a common antidepressant drug. Additionally, thinking about things for which we’re grateful triggers the parasympathetic nervous system: the system responsible for calming us down and producing a relaxed feeling in the mind and body.
How to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude functions like a muscle. The more you practice, the stronger you get. Here are some ways you can begin practicing today:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Set aside a time every few days to write down things for which you’re thankful. You can do it daily if you’d like. Commit to trying this for a few weeks to truly start to experience its benefits. Keep your notes in a physical journal, a spread sheet on your computer or a note on your phone—whichever is easiest for you. It’s also important to try to look for new things to be thankful for each time. Obviously if you’re thankful for the same things every time, that’s great, but train yourself to constantly be on the lookout for new things. You’ll be surprised what you find! (Here are some helpful tips for keeping a gratitude journal)
- Send a thank-you note. In addition to personal benefit, research has shown gratitude can provide similar benefits to recipients of gratitude. It can also establish a stronger relational bond.
- Say thank you. If you don’t have the time to sit down to write a note, tell someone verbally. At a time when many of us are “stuck” in the house with family and friends, it can be easy to become frustrated. Thanking the people you live with will help you view them as a gift instead of a burden.
- Give back. Scientists say we actually become more grateful when we give instead of receive. Think of ways you can give your time, money or talent to help someone.
- Reflect. Having a hard time thinking of reasons to be thankful right now? That’s okay. Think back on happy memories. This will give you a boost of serotonin and make you feel good.
- Think about the future. Again, if you’re having a hard time finding reasons to be thankful right now, think about good times to come: friends you can’t wait to see or activities you can’t wait to participate in again.
Fight the Good Fight
My dad was released from the hospital a month later. Thankfully, he’s still with us today. As I look back at that time, I don’t remember the anxiety or the stress or frustrations. I’m sure they were there, but instead I recall the peace I felt and the things for which I was thankful. I recall the power of gratitude.
COVID-19 has thrown us into a world in which many of us feel out of control, but the practice of gratitude is something we can control. With that being said, I encourage you to write down the things for which you are thankful and to tell the people around you that you’re thankful for them. I’m thankful you took the time to read this.
Perry is a copywriter and editor for Vitality Group. He loves black coffee, college football, being active and afternoons spent at Wrigley Field. When he’s not working for VG, you can find him hanging out with friends or curating a new Spotify playlist.