By: Steve Gainey, MA, LLP, ADS, CAADC, EAC Clinical Specialist
A Harvard Medical School article explains gratitude as “…a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals, whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” In this explanation, gratitude is an emotion similar to appreciation.
In reflecting on this explanation, a personal example comes to mind. One day, during the fall, I was raking leaves. I have a small yard in the city, but I still stuffed 40 bags of leaves. I was complaining to myself about all the leaves and the time I spent raking. Then a thought came to me; in the summer, I love all the trees and leaves. I can sit in the shade in my backyard and enjoy being outside, while others in the neighborhood are sitting under a small umbrella trying to stay out of the hot sun and 90-degree heat. In that moment, I appreciated what I had and was grateful for the leaves and what they give to me in the summer – shade, greenery, and beauty.
Actively expressing gratitude can be beneficial not only for the recipient, but also for those giving thanks. In an article shared on positivepsychology.com, researchers found neurological reasons why so many people can benefit from this general practice of expressing thanks for our lives, even in times of challenge and change. Various studies listed in the article revealed the following:
Grateful people are more agreeable, more open and less neurotic (Wood et al., 2010)
Gratitude is a powerful tool for strengthening relationships. People who express their gratitude for each other tend to be more willing to forgive others and be less self-centered. (Wood et al., 2010)
Emmons and Dr. McCullough found in their study that people who focused on gratitude showed more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)
The more gratitude we express in life, happiness levels go up. (Simon, n.d.)
Better Physical and Mental Health
Research performed in 2015 showed that patients with heart failure who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep, and better moods. The same patients saw a reduction in their symptoms of heart failure.
Reduction in the Stress Hormone Cortisol
In a study by McCraty, R., Barrios-Choplin, B., Rozman, D., Atkinson, M., & Watkins, A. D. (1998), adults were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions.” The results showed that there was a 23% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. 80% of the participants exhibited an increased coherence in heart rate variability patterns, indicating reduced stress.
As shown in numerous studies, gratitude is an important part of improving your mental health and well-being. I would encourage you to have “an attitude of gratitude” and adopt ways to be grateful every day. One way to do this is by creating a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, record three to five things you’ve been grateful for that day.