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Intentionally developing an “attitude of gratitude” is one of the most beneficial actions you can take for your overall well-being.  The connection between gratitude and health actually goes back a long way. Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have extolled gratitude as a virtue integral to health and well-being. More recently, science has linked gratitude with better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior. This one little mental habit – being grateful – dramatically impacts emotional and physical health.

The Research

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough point out that gratitude is the “forgotten factor” in happiness research.  Here’s a brief look at some of the benefits research is linking to the practice of gratitude:

  • Feel Better Physically. Several research projects have studied the nature of gratitude and its effect on physical health.  One such study found that people who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms  (headaches, coughing, nausea, pain), felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  • Protect Your Heart. Another study looked at the effect of gratitude on heart health (Steward). Results suggested that thinking about someone or something we appreciate and experiencing associated feelings of gratitude provides a protective effect on the heart.
  • Increase Your Focus and Energy. Daily gratitude practices were linked to higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.
  • Become more Altruistic. People using these practices have also been found to be more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another. In an experiment at Northeastern University, Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno found that recipient’s of assistance with a computer problem were more likely to volunteer to help someone else — a complete stranger — with an unrelated task.
  • Sleep Better… and Feel more Connected. A study involving adults with neuromuscular disease showed that keeping a daily gratitude journal resulted a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality. And these reports were corroborated by observations from their spouses.
  • Boost your Immune System. Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say boosts the immune system. Separate studies involving healthy but stressed people, people dealing with AIDS, and those facing surgery found that those who maintained optimistic, grateful attitudes had better health outcomes.  One study even showed that the optimistic participants maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared with their more pessimistic.
  • Fight off Depression and Stress. Practicing gratitude is related to a higher level of psychological well-being and a lower risk of certain forms of psychopathology. Specifically, people who practice gratitude report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress. (Wood, Froh, Geraghty, 2010)
  • Succeed in School. Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008). These children were also were less likely to report headaches, stomach aches, or other pain than their classmates.
  • Learn to Move On. Intentional gratitude has also been positively associated with capacity for, and practice of, forgiveness (Harpham, Komter, McCullough, 2004). And forgiveness is frequently positively linked with healing from emotional and psychological trauma.

Convinced yet?  This gratitude thing is GOOD FOR YOU!  It is a simple no-pill, no-sweat way to improve your mental and physical health.  So, let’s get started, shall we?

Cultivating Gratitude

 Look for small things to be grateful for every day. Wave at the driver who lets you into traffic. Smile at the person who holds the door for you.  Showing appreciation for these small acts of kindness will brighten your day as well as the Good Samaritan’s.

  1.  Start at home.  Pay attention to the small courteous gestures of those around you every day.  Be sure to say thank you. 
  2. Make a List. Get out a piece of lined paper and create a list of as many benefits in your life as you can think of – at least 100. Sometimes it takes a concrete reminder to help us focus on the positive aspects of our life.
  3. Start Reframing.  There is always more than one way to view a situation.  Try to find the positive “spin.” Difficult people provide an opportunity to exercise patience and compassion. A traffic jam might give you a chance to crank up the radio and enjoy some tunes. 
  4. Start a “gratitude lite” journal.  Start listing five things for which you feel grateful each week – a friend’s helpfulness, a new experience, a particularly spectacular sunset. Keep it brief — just one sentence for each of the five things. When you are ready, try increasing the practice – here’s a terrific printable journal page to get you started.
  5. Try a gratitude visit. This exercise, created by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, starts with writing a short letter to someone who positively impacted you. Be as specific as possible about the effect they had on your life. Deliver it in person, reading the whole thing slowly to your patron. You will be happier and less depressed one month from now.  Dr. Seligman says so.

Alright.  Enough talking.  I’m going to go add my lovely readers to those things I am most grateful for today.

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