Thank Your Way to Better Health with Gratitude

Thank Your Way to Better Health with Gratitude
Studies show developing gratitude practices can have a major impact on your overall health.

An ever-growing body of research confirms that gratitude has a number of potent health benefits. As noted by Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,1 an expert in brain and mind health:2 “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” Gratitude actually alters your brain in a number of beneficial ways, and helps:3

  1. Improve physical health by having a general pain-lowering effect, lowering inflammation and blood sugar, improving immune function,4 blood pressure and heart health5 and encouraging general self-care
  2. Increase happiness and life satisfaction by lowering stress and emotional distress
  3. Improve emotional resiliency, which also helps combat stress and anxiety
  4. Improve mental health by triggering the release of antidepressant and mood-regulating chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin, while inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol
  5. Improve sleep,6 which can have far-reaching benefits for physical and mental health

Research has also demonstrated that gratitude is the single best predictor of good relationships. Indeed, long before modern scientists confirmed these benefits, the philosophers of old espoused gratitude as the way to sanity, good health and life satisfaction.

Defining Gratitude

I recently finished reading “The Little Book of Gratitude,” by Robert Emmons. It’s a great book that I highly recommend if you need some inspiration. In it, he states, “We did not create or fashion ourselves, and we did not get to where we are in life by ourselves. So, living in gratitude is living in truth. It is the most accurate and honest approach to life.”

According to Emmons, gratitude involves “affirming the good and recognizing its sources. It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift, accompanied by an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted.”

Generosity and Happiness Are Neurally Linked

Interestingly, generosity has also been linked to happiness, which may seem counterintuitive since giving to others means sacrificing some of your own physical or emotional resources. Still, many decide to do it anyway — perhaps because they anticipate the feel-good afterglow.7 This experience has now been validated by science showing that generosity and happiness are actually wired together in your brain. As explained by the researchers:8

“We hypothesized that participants who had committed to spending their endowment on others would behave more generously in the decision-making task as well as self-report greater increases in happiness as compared to the control group. Importantly, we predicted that the neural link between generosity and happiness would involve functional interactions between brain regions engaged in generous behavior (TPJ) and those mediating happiness (ventral striatum).

The results confirmed our hypotheses. We found significantly higher levels of generous behavior and happiness, as reflected by greater TPJ activity for generous choices and generosity-related connectivity of the TPJ with striatal happiness regions in the experimental group. We thus conclude that the interplay of these brain regions links commitment-induced generosity with happiness.”

Unfortunately, many underestimate the link between generosity and happiness, and in fact assume the opposite — that they will be happier after spending money on themselves than others, for example.9 Now that you know otherwise, you can put this pearl of wisdom to good use. As study author, professor Philippe Tobler, from the department of economics at the University of Zurich, said in a news release, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.”10

Gratitude Is a Form of Generosity

Generosity does not necessarily have to involve money. Indeed, gratitude is a form of generosity, because it involves offering or extending “something” to another person — even if it’s only a verbal affirmation of thanks. After all, it’s not yourself you are grateful for but rather something or someone outside of yourself. Moreover, as noted by Emmons:

“In order for gratitude to exist, the giver must act intentionally, typically at some self-sacrifice, to bestow something worthwhile. The one receiving the gift needs to recognize it as a gift, as something good that was freely given. So gratitude engages at least three different aspects of the mind. We intellectually recognize the benefit, we willingly acknowledge this benefit, and we emotionally appreciate both the gift and the giver.

The term ‘gift’ is important in this context because gifts are unearned, things we are not owed by the giver and to which we are not entitled … When we are grateful, we recognize that we have no claim on the gift or benefit received, and it was freely bestowed out of compassion, generosity or love.

To recognize this gift is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is not simply a strategy or tactic for feeling better or for increasing our personal happiness. It does something much more than that. Gratitude enables a person to feel good and also to do good.”

Sow Seeds of Gratitude Every Day

Even if you don’t often feel gratitude right now, know it can be cultivated and strengthened with practice. One way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal where you write down what you’re grateful for each day. This can be done in a paper journal, or you can download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.11

In one 2015 study,12 participants who kept a gratitude diary and reflected on what they were grateful for four times a week for three weeks reported improvements in depression, stress and happiness. A mindfulness intervention, consisting of a mindfulness diary and mindfulness meditation, led to similar improvements. Indeed, it’s important to remember that you get more of what you focus on, so be mindful of the kinds of thoughts you entertain — especially at night. Emmons suggests:

“After you get into bed, but before drifting off to sleep, try to focus on pleasant thoughts — good things happening to your family or friends; the soothing sounds in your bedroom; how fortunate you are to be in good health; future plans, such as holidays or an upcoming trip; enjoyable things you did during the past few days; how relaxed you are feeling; good things that other people have done for you …

Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has said that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. Rest your mind upon worry, sadness, annoyance and irritability and it will begin to take the shape neurally of anxiety, depression and anger. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for, and begin to take the shape of gratitude.

Everything we do creates connections within networks of the brain, and the more you repeat something, the stronger those connections get. The mind can change the brain in lasting ways. In other words, what flows through the mind sculpts the brain.”

Read the rest of this post on