The Surprising Health Benefits of Gratitude
During this time of year, there are reminders everywhere to be grateful. In theory, we all know we should be grateful, but how often do we consciously practice gratitude?
When life is going well, being grateful can feel easy. But when we encounter disappointment, heartache, or setbacks, finding and expressing gratitude can feel nearly impossible.
The irony is that cultivating gratitude in the moments it may feel hardest to grasp often leaves the most significant impact on us. Just like working out when we don’t feel like it or brushing our teeth twice a day, gratitude is an action that, when practiced on a consistent basis, becomes second nature and pays dividends in the moments we need it most.
When practiced consistently, gratitude can drastically impact our mental, physical, and emotional health.
Studies indicate that daily gratitude can significantly increase our well-being and life satisfaction. From reducing depression, stress, and anxiety to supporting immunity, heart health, and better sleep, gratitude can change our lives.
Four Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude
- Reduced Depression
A review of 70 studies that include responses from more than 26,000 people found an association between higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of depression.
Additionally, people who regularly practice gratitude report higher life satisfaction. Gratitude impacts our view of the world, and it provides hope. Intentionally choosing to look for good can awaken our eyes to the beauty and depth of life without diminishing the reality of our circumstances.
- Decreased Anxiety
Gratitude is an incredibly impactful tool for coping with anxiety. One study found that when coupled with therapy, gratitude carried greater benefits than therapy alone, even when that gratitude practice was brief. The same study found that practicing gratitude changed how individuals communicated their experiences. They used fewer negative words to describe their circumstances and reported higher levels of mental health.
Regularly practicing gratitude combats negative thinking patterns by keeping thoughts focused on the present.
(RELATED: Practice Makes Presence)
- Stress Relief
Gratitude helps us relieve stress by calming our nervous systems. When we’re in a stressful or traumatic situation, our fight-or-flight response is activated. These moments of activation throw our nervous systems into hyperdrive, increasing our heart rate, contracting our muscles, and pumping our adrenaline.
In these moments, taking a minute to breathe and lean into the practice of gratitude can cause psychological changes in our bodies. It decreases our blood pressure and heart rate, slows our breathing, brings about relaxation, and decreases our overall stress.
- Supported Heart Health
According to UCLA Health “Many benefits of gratitude also support heart health. Improving depression symptoms, sleep, diet, and exercise reduces the risk of heart disease. Several studies show that a grateful mindset positively affects biomarkers associated with the risk for heart disease.”
A 2021 research study found that keeping a gratitude journal even has the potential to drop our diastolic blood pressure — the force our hearts exert between beats.
Now that we’ve shared the importance of cultivating intentional gratitude, how do you actually put it into practice?
Five Ways to Practice Gratitude
1. Engage in a Daily Gratitude Journal
Study after study has shown that a consistent daily gratitude practice is connected to numerous health benefits. Creating space to write a small list of gratitude every morning or evening can help you establish a predictable habit and rhythm around gratitude.
2. Send a Note
Often, we may think of someone with gratitude but rarely take the step to acknowledge and document our thankfulness. Instead of brushing past your thoughts in the moment, take five minutes to jot down a note of appreciation. Grab a stamp or press send on the email and reap the benefits of gratitude.
3. Take a Breath
Never underestimate the power of a pause. In a stressful moment, take a few deep breaths and, with each exhale, state one thing you’re grateful for. Your heart rate will slow, your head will clear, and you may even shift your perspective on what you’re facing.
4. Intercept Spiraling Thoughts
Grateful thoughts (even if you don’t write them down) slow your heart, regulate your breathing, and ground you to the present moment. Taking a few minutes to notice what you’re grateful for can interrupt destructive thinking patterns and become an instinctive response to spiraling or racing thoughts.
5. Say it Out Loud
Our words have power. If you’re feeling grateful for something big or small, say it out loud. Whether you’re thanking a coworker for helping finish a project, acknowledging how your partner supports you, or are just overcome with the beauty of the sky, expressing our gratitude out loud gives us the gift of presence and peace.
Beginning to practice gratitude may feel clumsy at first. Keep at it! Gratitude begets gratitude; before you know it, the practice will become second nature!