Take the usual hustle and bustle of daily life, add the social and political turmoil we find ourselves in these days, and it’s hard not to get swept up in negativity. You know the drill: ruminating on ’how bad things are,’ competing with others or striving for what you don’t have. It’s all too easy to set yourself on a very dissatisfied course. How to get off the not-so-merry-go-round? Learn the art of gratitude! Think of gratitude as a skill that you can, and should, brush up on.
With gratitude you can positively impact your mental and physical health, and your relationships, which is why I highly recommend working more of it into your day. That said, appreciating every moment doesn’t mean pretending that something is good when it isn’t. It’s not about denial or delusion. It’s about training yourself to see the good that actually exists alongside the challenges, and to notice the ripple effect of this positive perspective.
Just like eating well and getting enough rest and exercise, gratitude is one more healthy habit to add to your wellness arsenal that can make an enormous impact on your life. Here’s why, plus a few pointers on how to get into a gratitude groove:
Gratitude enhances your health, boosting both body and brain.
When it comes to gratitude, there’s a lot to like. On a physical level, research indicates that gratitude can help lower blood pressure and blood sugar, boost heart health and immune function. Gratitude has a positive effect on your gray matter as well, stimulating the release of mood-lifting neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin while curbing the release of cortisol, aka, the stress hormone. Gratitude is associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, both at rest and in the face of stress. On an emotional level, studies also suggest that practicing gratitude increases overall happiness, contentment, feelings of generosity and emotional resilience as well as improving relationship quality and reducing depression. In other words, gratitude is a totally side-effect-free “wonder drug” that you can “manufacture” simply by learning how to embrace it.
Get to know gratitude.
So what, exactly, is gratitude? As defined by Dr. Robert Emmons, noted psychologist and researcher on the psychology of happiness at UC Davis, it’s the warm feeling we get when we give or receive a gift or a kindness. It’s a form of thankfulness, of not taking things for granted. In practical terms, gratitude shifts our priorities from what we think we want and need, spending time and energy chasing things we don’t currently have, to the appreciation of, and thankfulness for, what we do have, even the small or seemingly insignificant things. When most everything is perceived as a gift, you can’t help but see the world in a kinder light and feel supported by it. On the other hand, when you spend time not being thankful, or ‘ungrateful,’ complaining or comparing yourself to others, the external world can be a pretty depressing, anxiety-producing place. So, which one do you prefer?
Gratitude is a skill, so practice daily.
For many people, gratitude is not their default. If you count yourself among the glass-half-empty crowd, then it’s time to get your gratitude practice going, if for no other reason than to improve your health. Start by keeping a daily list of the things you are thankful for. By calling out and noting the good in everyday life – those nice moments, positive interactions and pleasant encounters – you’ll be able to start shifting your focus from the negative to the positive. That doesn’t mean that the tough stuff of life won’t still be there, but over time, both sides of the coin will be more evenly weighted.
Gratitude fast-tracks resilience.
As a clinician, I’ve often been struck by the way that patients who are grateful for something in their lives tend to handle health problems more smoothly and rebound from illness more easily. When you view the world through the lens of thankfulness, more good things start to happen in all aspects of your life. As my favorite African proverb says, “give thanks for a little and you will find a lot.” Nothing like expanding and enriching your existence, simply by growing your gratitude! To grow more of your own, keep these tips in mind:
- START… your day with gratitude. Before you brush your teeth each morning, pause. Take ten seconds to look at yourself in the mirror, breathe calmly, become present to yourself, and commit to noting the good throughout your day.
- DECIDE… each morning to consciously feel satisfied with what you have, instead of longing for what you don’t – as many times a day as you need to. Less longing and craving equals more satisfaction with what already exists in your life, and ultimately, more happiness.
- REMEMBER… that the world and everyone in it is not out to get you. More likely, they’re supportive forces that provide you with gifts to be grateful for every day. It’s up to you to recognize and appreciate them.
- RECOGNIZE… that just about every moment is an opportunity to feel gratitude and be thankful. Noticing the small pleasant stuff like getting a seat on the commuter train, your kid’s smile, your dog’s wagging tail, the smell of coffee brewing or a shared joke with a friend – it all adds up, once you start to pay attention.
- LET GO… of the daily negative score-keeping. Many of us keep score of the bad stuff that happens in the day – often giving it more power than is actually warranted. But how many of us track the good stuff? When you become more aware of all that there is to be thankful for, the bad stuff loses much of its power and you spend less time in the negative zone. Spending more time in gratitude rebalances the scales and tips your perspective in a more positive direction.
- END… the day with a simple gratitude ritual: Before you fall asleep at night, take thirty seconds to review your optimism habit: How did you do today? Did the complaints outweigh the appreciation? Simply take notice, then let it go. Another option: end the day with a simple prayer of gratitude for the gifts in your life, such as your health, loved ones, home, etc., anything and everything that is positive. Then close with a simple affirmation for the future: “I am grateful for unknown blessings already on their way.” That helps set the stage for an even more wonderful, gratitude-filled tomorrow.