Self-care is essential, especially in today’s heavily polarized political climate. For some, that’s eating healthily or having a mindfulness practice, such as yoga or meditation. For others, self-care is as simple as indulging in a relaxing soak in a hot bath. But there’s another incredibly easy way you can enhance your overall well-being: by practicing gratitude.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means gratefulness or graciousness. By practicing gratitude, people are able to express the things in life that they are thankful for—whether they are tangible or intangible or stem from the past or present.
According to Harvard Health, “in positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” A growing number of studies show a strong correlation between being grateful and one’s overall happiness. But how exactly does expressing gratitude make one happier?
How does gratitude change the brain?
The positive impacts of being thankful are far-reaching, especially on the human brain.
Two researchers—Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami—conducted a study in 2003 about the dimensions and perspectives of gratitude.
Through their research, Emmons and McCullough have found that people who expressed gratitude on a regular basis generally reported higher levels of positive emotions and have a better disposition in life. They also found that grateful people typically express fewer “unpleasant emotions” like jealousy and anger. Overall, grateful people tend to be more optimistic, express greater satisfaction in life, and have lower levels of depression and stress.
But how is this possible? According to the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA, being grateful actually changes the neural structures of the brain. When people express—or receive—gratitude, their brain releases two feel-good chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. The former is associated with happiness and the latter helps to regulate one’s overall mood.
“Thanking others, thanking ourselves, Mother Nature, or the Almighty—gratitude in any form can enlighten the mind and make us feel happier. It has a healing effect on us,” psychiatric counselor Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury wrote for Positive Psychology.
Chowdhury explains that feelings of gratitude correlate to an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for regulating negative emotions. Thus, expressing thankfulness can help to regulate mood and reduce feelings of fear, anxiety, and shame.
“These simple exchanges of thankfulness goes a long way in affecting our overall biological functioning—especially the brain and the nervous system,” she continued. “Besides enhancing self-love and empathy, gratitude significantly impacts on body functions and psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression.”
How does gratitude enhance well-being?
Feeling thankful yet? Well, you just might be after learning that being grateful is also associated with a number of other physical benefits.
Gratitude fundamentally impacts the brain, so it’s no surprise that other areas of the body are impacted as well. A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that grateful people generally experience less pain. Because being thankful helps to reduce negative feelings and promote positive ones, grateful people may also sleep better and improves the sleep-wake cycle. This can be especially helpful to those suffering from insomnia.
According to the American Psychological Association, giving thanks also helps to promote a healthy heart. Studies show being grateful may help to reduce cardiac risk and diseases.
And for those that struggle with feelings of inadequacy, gratitude also helps to improve self-esteem. Because grateful people spend their time appreciating themselves and others for their accomplishments, they are not resentful of what others have. In this way, gratitude helps to reduce social comparisons and aids in a general contentedness about life.
How to practice gratitude
Regularly give thanks
In order to partake in all of the positive benefits of being thankful, you have to first be grateful. Set aside time each day or week to express what you are thankful for. You can express self-gratitude by repeating a mantra to yourself or looking in the mirror and saying out loud the things you appreciate about yourself and your life. You can say something as simple as “I am blessed.” Or you can go into more detail about something you’re specifically grateful for.
Keep a gratitude journal
Do you like to write? Express self-gratitude and thanks for your life by setting aside time each week to jot down a few sentences of what you are thankful for. Emmon’s and McCullough’s 2003 study found that people who regularly wrote down what they were grateful for expressed greater optimism about their lives after just two months. They were also 25 percent happier than those who didn’t write about things that they were grateful for.
Don’t be afraid to tell others that you are grateful for them or something that they have done. Write a handwritten thank-you note or send a quick note of thanks via email. In his book entitled 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, author John Kralik explains how writing a thank you note every day for an entire year completely changed his life. At a time when he was at his lowest—he was overweight, his law firm was failing, and he was struggling through a second failed marriage—Kralik was able to transform his perspective and his life by giving thanks. At the end of the year, he lost weight, his business was prospering, and he was in a better place with friends and family.
By meditating, you are able to be present and in the moment. What better time to give thanks? Focus on something you’re grateful for each time you meditate and spend your time thinking about how thankful you are for that thing or person, etc.
Try a gratitude exercise
In addition to the aforementioned activities, there are many other exercises you can do to promote being grateful. You can say a prayer each day in which you give thanks after you wake up and before you go to bed. Take a walk or spend time in nature. During this time, you can spend time reflecting on the things in your life that you are grateful for.
Will you spend more time practicing gratitude? Whether you choose to write in a gratitude journal or send a letter to a friend expressing thanks, you can easily reap all of the positive benefits that the act of being grateful has to offer.