Importance of Gratitude

Family and friends gathered around thanksgiving dinner holding hands

Gratitude Offers Many Proven Health Benefits

Gratitude should extend well beyond the Thanksgiving holiday, as it cultivates a feeling that serves an important biological benefit, according to researchers. Numerous studies have linked practicing gratitude regularly with many positive influences on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and health. 

Gratitude is an intentional focus on appreciation that’s consciously acknowledged. Those who incorporate regular gratitude awareness reap many physical and mental health benefits.

As we prepare to focus on gratitude celebrations with family and friends during Thanksgiving gatherings, your local Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health experts shares the many benefits daily gratitude offers your overall health and how you can incorporate daily gratitude practices so you can enjoy a long quality life.

Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude is good for your mental, emotional and physical health. According to researchers, there are many health benefits to practicing and expressing gratitude regularly:

  • It relieves stress. Gratitude is a great emotional regulator, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

    Researchers analyzed participants' heart rates before, during and after experiencing gratitude and before, during and after experiencing resentment. When participants focused on what they deemed feeling grateful for, their heart rates decreased, a change associated with calmness and more sedated reactions. Additionally, gratitude practice relaxed communication between various brain regions correlated with increased anxiety, suggesting gratefulness may make it easier for the mind to avoid becoming stressed.

  • It incites feeling more positive emotions. Gratitude initiates the brain to produce more dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of pleasure and reward-motivated behavior, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that may help regulate mood and social behaviors. Research suggests gratitude has a positive impact on feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

  • It helps calm you down during difficult times. Reframing your mindset does wonders for your emotional state and helps reduce impact of negative effects like irrational and negative thinking.  When you’re triggered, the amygdala, the emotional alarm in the center of the brain, shuts down executive functioning, where logic, reason, rationality, communication and decision-making reside. Choosing gratitude over a grudge and over the negative doesn’t necessarily negate the issue; but it can help you feel less emotionally charged and able to analyze and respond and offers beneficial coping mechanisms like resiliency.

  • It strengthens your relationships. Gratitude increases interconnectivity with others. It serves as a subtle reminder you’re not alone, as your problems and insecurities are valid and shared. Recognizing this can help you strengthen social connections.

    A series of five 2012 studies published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found gratitude enhances empathy, and in turn, reduces aggression. Per the studies’ results, this is because empathy is the ability to be sensitive toward and understand people's intentions and emotions. When individuals are empathetic, they’re less likely to be confrontational and more likely to behave in a manner that fosters positive sociability.

  • It helps you understand others better. according to research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, individuals who regularly practiced gratitude were said to have more gray matter (cell bodies in regions of the brain where information is processed) in the right temporal lobe of the brain, the area that processes emotions. Increased gray matter volume in that specified area has been associated with "increases in healthy individuals with higher competence in interpreting other's intentions," researchers noted. These findings suggest gratitude may be connected to an enhanced ability to understand others’ motivations, actions and behaviors.

  • It may make you more physically healthy. Research shows those who are more grateful feel healthier. A 2013 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found more grateful people were more likely to report better physical health. Researchers found those who practiced more gratitude tended to have better psychological health, participated in more healthy activities and were more willing to seek help for their health concerns, all of which made them more likely to experience better actual health.

    Some research suggests that honing a more grateful mentality now might even help prevent disease later in life.

    A 2015 study found gratitude can lead to better mood, better sleep quality, more proactive relating to maintaining heart health and even lowered inflammation levels within the body.

    Another study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed blood flow across various brain regions while participants expressed gratitude.  Results found individuals showing more gratitude experienced higher hypothalamus activity levels, the brain area that controls major bodily functions like eating, drinking, sleeping, metabolism and stress responses.

    According to these brain activities, improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects, including increased exercise, improved sleep, decreased depression risk, better cognitive function, as well as less aches and pains.

  • It helps you get a better night’s sleep. Instead of counting sheep, count what you’re grateful for when you turn in at night.  A 2011 study published in the journal Applied Sciences: Health and Wellbeing found that when college students struggling to get a good night's sleep adopted gratitude practice, they had less worry and less brain stimulation before bed, 2 behaviors that tend to make it harder to wind down and sleep, with moderately improved sleep overall.

  • It makes you less materialistic. Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in August 2018 found the secret to raising a child who isn't materialistic is to instill a sense of gratitude in them early, through example of demonstrating kindness and helpfulness to others, both as a parent and together as a family. Additionally, gratitude demonstrated by young people is correlated with less envy of others.

  • It helps you recognize what you have. Finding all new opportunities to experience gratitude helps create new, positive mental habits and even form additional neural pathways within the brain. Gratitude can help you view the world positively, shifting your perspective from a deficit mindset to one having abundance.

  • It lessens likelihood of depression. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Rome found regularly expressing feelings of gratitude can lead to fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Gratitude can also cause a ripple effect of increased motivation and hope, 2 behaviors that ward off debilitating thoughts that often lead to depression and other mental health difficulties.

  • It promotes greater self-esteem. Studies show self-confidence in yourself and in your abilities can also stem from regularly expressing feelings of gratitude. Gratitude practices initiate a domino effect: the more positive you feel within yourself, the more positive energy you exhibit.

  • It emphasizes a positive outlook on life. The human brain usually tends to focus on the negative. A regular gratitude practice challenges this negativity bias to promote a more positive outlook, as noted in a series of three studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

  • It can help you cope through emotional trauma and illness. Research shows turning to gratitude as a coping mechanism in times of mental stress and emotional trauma can help alleviate some of the pain and prevent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Additionally, gratitude can help recovery from substance misuse, enhance recovery from coronary health events and facilitate recovery of those diagnosed with depression.

  • It can help you teach your brain to identify altruism as more rewarding. Research suggests the more grateful you are for the people, experiences, and material things in your life, the more willing and the happier you are to give to those less fortunate.

    In one study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers analyzed people's brain activity through an MRI scanner as they watched money transferred into either their personal account (designed to spur feelings of gratitude) or the account of a local food bank (designed to spur feelings of altruism.) Both feelings lit up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the brain area that processes risk and reward, indicating gratitude and giving are closely related.

    Researchers then had people begin gratitude journaling. In a fascinating and unexpected development, after 3 weeks of journaling, people's brains responded differently to feelings of gratitude and altruism. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex started lighting up even more in response to giving than it used to before initiating gratitude journaling in study participants.

  • Neurologically speaking, gratitude’s effects could grow as time progresses. Research published in the journal Psychotherapy Research in 2016 suggests the more often you express thanks, the stronger the psychological rewards are for doing it.

    The study divided about 300 participants into 3 groups: The first group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person for 3 weeks, the second was asked to write about their feelings about negative experiences and the third wasn’t assigned a writing prompt. The results showed individuals who wrote letters of gratitude reported "significantly" better mental health after their writing exercise ended, but that wasn't even the most intriguing result. 

    Over 2 months later, researchers used an fMRI scan to analyze all participants’ brain activity while they received money from a kind stranger, which was designed to inspire feelings of gratitude. Those writing the gratitude letters showed a lot more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with learning and decision-making, than those who hadn't done a writing exercise, suggesting a 3-week gratitude practice was still affecting people's brains nearly 3 months after initiating the process.

    Most importantly, you can instill regular gratitude practices within your life in small, yet meaningful ways to help you boost your overall happiness, reduce stress and lower your susceptibility toward depression and anxiety.

Ongoing Gratitude Practices

It doesn’t take a lot of time to squeeze regular gratitude practices into your everyday life. Taking a few minutes each day and continuing with one such practice until it becomes habit can enhance your mental, emotional and physical health, both now and in the years to come.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. You don’t have to completely fill a page – even a bullet list of things you recognize and are grateful for each day in very few words leaves a lingering feeling of wellbeing and positivity that you can revisit when you need encouragement and hope. 

  • Model gratitude and include your kids. Modeling gratitude for your kids and including them in the process is a great way to teach them about gratitude’s importance. Doing so nurtures their abilities to recognize and acknowledge it, establishing a great foundation for gratitude to continue to flourish as they become adults. Some ideas include helping a neighbor, donating to a charity or doing a kindness for a friend.

  • Write a gratitude letter. Putting your gratitude into written words helps continue gratitude’s positive effects. Whether it’s thanking your child’s teacher for extra tutoring support or a colleague who stayed late to help you prepare a corporate presentation, expressing and sharing your gratitude via letter enhances your health and wellbeing, plus that of the recipient. Kids can also take part in this practice as part of developing gratitude practices that progress with them into adulthood.

  • Have a daily family “gratitude check in.” Establish sharing something each family member is grateful for at the evening dinner table. Give everyone a chance to respond. This creates and increases gratitude awareness in kids plus offers great family mealtime conversations. If family dinners aren’t doable options, you could ask your child when you tuck them in at night about something they’re grateful for that day.

  • Thank helpful community members. Taking the time to acknowledge the gift of kindness with a sincere “thank you” that includes eye contact increases positive connectivity with those in your family, neighborhood and community. By thanking others, you become aware and in tune with the positivity that surrounds us, which can effectively invite more positive thoughts, feelings and actions. Plus, you help others feel positive and they’ll continue to spread it to others.

  • Count your reasons for gratitude as part of your nightly sleep ritual. Doing so settles the mind and leads us toward positive thoughts as we achieve sleep, which can also help us to awaken refreshed and with positive feelings the following morning. You could try the A-Z approach, naming a reason for gratitude using alphabetical sequencing, or decide upon a specific number of gratitude reasons as you relax your mind and body toward sleep.

  • Take a 1-minute inventory of everything that went right during the day. Jot down your gratitude reasons in a special notebook kept on your nightstand so you can truly reflect on the positive things within your life.

  • Do 1 kind deed a day for someone, whether you know (or like) them or not. Holding a door, picking up a dropped bag, helping an officemate with a question about equipment or company policies or even stating a pleasant good morning greeting to a nosy neighbor does wonders for others, as well as ourselves. Chances are they will pay your positivity forward, sharing continued kindness and feelings of cheer and wellbeing with others.   

Your local Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health professionals extends heartfelt wishes to you and your family for an enjoyable and healthy Thanksgiving. We sincerely appreciate you entrusting us with you and your family’s care and treatment. We are here to answer your questions or concerns about optimizing your mental, emotional and physical health and any women’s health issue. Our knowledgeable, compassionate women’s health experts offer you and your family comprehensive, personalized care and treatment so you can achieve and enjoy long quality lives.

Sources:

https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-6823/10-Benefits-of-Gratitude.html
https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-gratitude/
https://www.phillyvoice.com/gratitude-health-benefits-wellness-sleep-str...
https://www.chopra.com/articles/5-health-benefits-of-gratitude#:~:text=5...
https://news.yahoo.com/22-tiny-mental-health-habits-234416404.html?gucco...
https://www.spectracare.org/thankfulness-mental-health/
https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-gratitude-research-questions/
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/mental-health-...
https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/11/23/456656055/gratitude...

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