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By Dr. Mercola
Only 1 in 3 Americans reports being “very happy,”1 and nearly 1 in 4 experience no life enjoyment at all.2 Fortunately, there’s hope. Small changes in perspective and behavior can add up over time, and practicing gratitude is at the top of the list of strategies known to boost happiness and life satisfaction.
If your happiness could use a pick-me-up, commit to cultivating an attitude of gratitude every day. Not only will it pave the way to life satisfaction, but research also confirms it benefits both sanity and physical health. Enhancing your health and well-being, then, may be as simple as taking the time each day to reflect on what you’re thankful for.
Gratitude Leads to Cascade of Positive Psychological Effects
It also boosts your sense of pleasure in general. This effect has been traced back to gratitude’s ability to stimulate your hypothalamus (a brain area involved in the regulation of stress) and ventral tegmental area (part of your brain’s “reward circuitry,” an area that produces pleasurable feelings).5
“This experiment … provided evidence that perceptions of interpersonal warmth (e.g., friendliness, thoughtfulness) serve as the mechanism via which gratitude expressions facilitate affiliation.
Insofar as gratitude expressions signaled interpersonal warmth of the expresser, they prompted investment in the burgeoning social bond. As such, these findings provide the first empirical evidence regarding 1 of the 3 central premises of the find-remind-and-bind theory of gratitude in the context of novel relationships.”
The ability to feel gratitude for little everyday things can also boost your willpower, improve your impulse control and make you a more patient person, all of which allow you to make more sensible decisions — including decisions concerning your health and finances.7 Interestingly, gratitude is associated with increased happiness via a neural link to generosity.
Gratitude is actually a form of generosity, because it involves offering or extending “something” to another person, even if it’s only a verbal affirmation of thanks. Generosity, in turn, is neutrally linked to happiness. In other words, your brain is actually wired to boost your happiness when you commit acts of generosity, even when no money is involved.8,9
Gratitude Is a Powerful Antidepressant
Considering its ability to boost happiness and social connectivity, it’s no surprise gratitude has been shown to combat depression.10 Experiments have demonstrated that getting in the habit of listing three things you’re grateful for each day results in considerable improvements in depression, sometimes in as little as two weeks.
There’s even biochemical support for the antidepressive effects of gratitude. Gratitude actually triggers the release of antidepressant and mood-regulating chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin, while inhibiting the stress chemical cortisol.11 These neurochemical effects are also why gratitude has been linked to reduced stress.12 Yet another reason is because it improves emotional resiliency.13
Lastly, gratitude has been shown to improve work performance. In one study, managers who expressed gratitude saw a 50 percent increase in the employees’ performance. Considering more than half of all American workers say they’re frustrated at or by work,14 it’s quite clear there’s a lot of room for improvement here, and gratitude could go a long way toward fostering a healthier work environment for all parties.
Gratitude Affects Your Physical Health in Numerous Ways
The emotion of gratitude also has myriad physical benefits, actually producing measurable effects on a number of bodily systems, and correlating positively with self-rated physical health in general.15 Grateful people are also more likely to engage in healthy activities and self-care, such as exercising regularly, eating well and getting regular medical wellness checks. Other studies have found gratitude:16,17,18,19
Lowers blood sugar
Helps lower high blood pressure
Reduces inflammation by lowering inflammatory cytokines
Has pain relieving effects
Improves sleep quality and quantity,20,21 especially if your mind has a tendency to go into overdrive with negative thoughts and worries at bedtime. One reason for this is because gratitude has a soothing effect on your nervous system
Improves immune function23
A Dozen Practical Strategies to Build and Strengthen Gratitude
Following are a diverse array of practices, recommended by various experts and researchers, that can boost your gratitude quotient. Pick one or more that appeal to you, and make a point to work it into your daily or weekly schedule. If you like, conduct your own little experiment:
Write down your current level of happiness and life satisfaction on a piece of paper or your annual calendar, using a rating system of zero to 10. Every three months or so (provided you’ve actually been doing your gratitude exercise), re-evaluate and re-rank yourself.
Keep a gratitude journal
Each day, or on set days each week, write down everything you’re grateful for, and make an effort to really feel the positivity. While you can certainly buy a nice diary specifically for this purpose, you could simply make a notation in your daily calendar. Alternatively, download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.24
Here are a few tips from Robert Emmons, a world expert on gratitude and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, to consider as you journal: Focus on the benevolence of other people. Doing so will increase your sense of being supported by life and decrease unnecessary anxiety. Also, focus on what you have received rather than what’s been withheld.
“The ‘surplus’ mode will increase our feelings of worth; the ‘deficit’ mode will lead us to think how incomplete our life is,” Emmons says. Lastly, avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages. Doing so will only erode your sense of security. As Emmons notes, “Wanting more is related to increased anxiety and unhappiness.
A healthier comparison is to contemplate what life would be like without a pleasure that you now enjoy … Gratitude buffers you from emotions that drive anxiety. You cannot be grateful and envious, or grateful while harboring regrets.”
Write thank-you notes25
“When thanking someone who has done something for you, whether large or small, be specific, comment on the effort it has taken, and the cost, and keep the focus on that person,” Emmons suggests. “For example, ‘Thank you for bringing me my tea in bed. I really appreciate you getting up early each day. You’re so thoughtful.’ The key to effectiveness is to achieve some separation between the kind act and your expression.”
This year, make it a point to write thank-you notes or letters in response to each gift or kind act — or simply as a show of gratitude for someone being in your life. To get you started, consider practicing mindful thank yous for seven days straight.
Say grace at each meal
Adopting the ritual of saying grace at each meal is a great way to flex your gratitude muscle on a daily basis,26 and will also foster a deeper connection to your food.
While this can be a perfect opportunity to honor a spiritual connection with the divine, you don’t have to turn it into a religious speech if you don’t want to. You could simply say, “I am grateful for this food, and appreciate all the time and hard work that went into its production, transportation and preparation.”
Let go of negativity by changing your perception
Disappointment — especially if you’re frequently struggling with things “not going your way” — can be a major source of stress, which is known to have far-reaching effects on your health and longevity. In fact, centenarians overwhelmingly cite stress as the most important thing to avoid if you want to live a long and healthy life.
Since stress is virtually unavoidable, the key is to develop and strengthen your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t wear you down over time. Rather than dwelling on negative events, most centenarians figured out how to let things go, and you can do that too. It takes practice though. It’s a skill that must be honed daily, or however often you’re triggered.
A foundational principle to let go of negativity is the realization that the way you feel has little to do with the event itself, and everything to do with your perception of it. Wisdom of the ancients dictate that events are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is your belief about the event that upsets you, not the fact that it happened.
As noted by Ryan Holiday, author of “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living,”27 “The Stoics are saying, ‘This happened to me,’ is not the same as, ‘This happened to me and that’s bad.’ They’re saying if you stop at the first part, you will be much more resilient and much more able to make some good out of anything that happens.”
Listen to your own advice
Another potent technique that can increase your positive-to-negative emotion ratio is to ask yourself, “What would I recommend if this happened to someone else?” and then follow your own advice. Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University and author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” explains that the reason this technique — which he calls “taking the outside perspective” — works so well.
It is because when we make recommendations to others, we don’t take our own current state of mind and emotions into account. We’re distanced emotionally from an event that happens to someone else, and that distance allows us to make saner, more reasonable decisions.
Be mindful of your nonverbal actions
Smiling and hugging are both ways of expressing gratitude, encouragement, excitement, empathy and support. These physical actions also help strengthen your inner experience of positive emotions.
Research28 shows that using “other-praising” phrases are far more effective than “self-beneficial” phrases. For example, praising a partner saying, “thank you for going out of your way to do this,” is more powerful than a compliment framed in terms of how you benefited, such as “it makes me happy when you do that.”
The former resulted in the partner feeling happier and more loving toward the person giving the praise. Also, be mindful of your delivery — say it like you mean it. Establishing eye contact is another tactic that helps you show your sincerity.
Prayer and/or mindfulness meditation
Expressing thanks during prayer or meditation is another way to cultivate gratitude. Practicing “mindfulness” means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. A mantra is sometimes used to help maintain focus, but you can also focus on something that you’re grateful for, such as a pleasant smell, a cool breeze or a lovely memory.
Create a nightly gratitude ritual
One suggestion is to create a gratitude jar,29 into which the entire family can add notes of gratitude on a daily basis. Any jar or container will do. Simply write a quick note on a small slip of paper and put it into the jar. Some make an annual (or biannual or even monthly) event out of going through the whole jar, reading each slip out loud. If you have young children, a lovely ritual suggested by Dr. Alison Chen in a Huffington Post article30 is to create a bedtime routine that involves stating what you’re grateful for out loud.
Spend money on activities instead of things
According to recent research,31 spending money on experiences not only generates more gratitude than material consumption, it also motivates greater generosity. As noted by coauthor Amit Kumar, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago, “People feel fortunate, and because it’s a diffuse, untargeted type of gratitude, they’re motivated to give back to people in general.”32
Embrace the idea of having “enough”
According to many who have embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, the key to happiness is learning to appreciate and be grateful for having “enough.” The average credit card debt for Americans who carry a balance is $16,000. People with a negative net worth or a net worth of zero carry an average of $10,300 in credit card debt.33
Meanwhile, financial hardship and work stress are two significant contributors to depression and anxiety. The answer is to buy less and appreciate more. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, practice being grateful for the things you already have, and release yourself from the iron grip of advertising, which tells you there’s lack in your life.
Many who have adopted the minimalist lifestyle claim they’ve been able to reduce the amount of time they have to work to pay their bills, freeing up time for volunteer work, creative pursuits and taking care of their personal health, thereby dramatically raising their happiness and life satisfaction. The key here is deciding what “enough” is. Consumption itself is not the problem; unchecked and unnecessary shopping is.
It’s like being on a hamster wheel — you keep shopping, thinking happiness and life satisfaction will come with it. Yet it never does. Many times, accumulation of material goods is a symptom that you may be trying to fill a void in your life, yet that void can never be filled by material things.
More often than not, the void is silently asking for more love, personal connection, or experiences that bring purpose and passionate engagement. So, make an effort to identify your real, authentic emotional and spiritual needs, and then focus on fulfilling them in ways that does not involve shopping.
Tap for gratitude
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a helpful tool for a number of emotional challenges, including lack of gratitude. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure based on the energy meridians used in acupuncture that can quickly restore inner balance and healing, and help rid your mind of negative thoughts and emotions. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for gratitude.
Thank You for Your Continued Support
As Mercola.com celebrates its 21st year online, I have much to be grateful for, especially my staff, without whom this website would not be what it is today. It takes a large team to keep everything running — a fact I quickly learned back in 1997 when I started this website and still had my medical practice. There are many editors, customer support, an IT tech team and great managers and administrators that make all of this possible.
I also want to express my deep gratitude to all of you who support this work by reading the newsletter and sharing your knowledge of and experience with these health principles with your family and friends, thereby “paying it forward” in countless ways, helping the world get healthier one person at a time.
I often receive notes of thanks from readers, some of which are featured in the video above. Knowing that people are turning their lives around and regaining their health brings me great joy and satisfaction. My search for optimal health has been a lifelong journey, and I am grateful for all of you who walk this path with me.
Read more: articles.mercola.com