Practicing Gratitude Improves Your Mental and Emotional Health

It is easy to be grateful for specific, good things in our life – a promotion, a new grandchild, or a successful operation. It is also easy for most people to find and express gratitude on a special day like Thanksgiving, surrounded by friends and family. But gratitude is also a way of being. It takes intention and practice and the rewards may surprise you!

According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude (Yes, the SCIENCE!), gratitude can have a dramatic and lasting effect on your life, “Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.” He asserts that being thankful can block toxic emotions such as envy, resentment, regret, and depression. That’s just the start!

Dr. Emmons also reports that studies have shown that:

  • Practicing gratitude led to a 7-percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure.
  • Two gratitude activities (counting blessings and gratitude letter writing) reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over a six month period.
  • A daily gratitude practice can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration (as measured by a 9 percent increase in verbal fluency) that occurs with increasing age.
  • Grateful people have 16 percent lower diastolic blood pressure and 10 percent lower systolic blood pressure compared to those less grateful.
  • Grateful patients with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure were 16 percent less depressed, 20 percent less fatigued and 18 percent more likely to believe they could control the symptoms of their illness compared to those less grateful.
  • Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88 percent of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94 percent of them.
  • Grateful people (including people grateful to God) have between 9-13 percent lower levels of Hemoglobin A1c, a key marker of glucose control that plays a significant role in the diagnosis of diabetes.
  • Gratitude is related to a 10 percent improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76 percent of whom had insomnia, and 19 percent lower depression levels.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to dwell on the negative – it’s called the negativity bias. The negativity bias says that there is a significant disproportion between how we focus on negative and positive stimuli. In fact, it seems that it takes 5 positive feelings to counteract one negative feeling of the same magnitude.  According to Rick Hanson, PhD, a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author, this hard-wired tendency can wear individuals down physically and mentally, as we focus on irritations, annoyances, and injustices. This should not be confused with the very real symptoms of major or clinical depression, identified by a persistent depressed mood and loss of interest in normal activities and other symptoms, that may required medication and counseling. With effort and practice, however, it is possible to change the negativity bias into a life-view of thankfulness.

It seems obvious that gratitude involves expressing thanks for what is good in your life, but it is also about recognizing that some of that goodness comes from outside of yourself – other people, nature, or a higher power. Gratitude can help you experience the emotions of happiness more often, improve resilience, and strengthen relationships.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order; confusion into clarity…Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” –Melodie Beattie, Author of international bestselling book, Codependent No More

Some exercises that can cultivate gratitude in your life include:

  • Keep a gratitude journal – every day write down things for which you were grateful throughout that day
  • Outwardly express your gratitude – call or write someone to express your appreciation for their impact on your life
  • Slow down – take time to savour even the simple moments in your life, and reflect on what you appreciate most about them
  • Turn a frown upside down – take a negative experience and think about how it can serve as a positive force in your life and be grateful for having had the experience (this one may be difficult, but not impossible, and the results can be life-altering)

For more inspiration on gratitude, see how Hailey Bartholomew, photographer, author, director, social commentator and artist, embarked on her gratitude journey 365 grateful project

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