Once a year we set aside a day as a nation to reflect on all of the reasons we have to be grateful (yes, it’s not just about turkey and stuffing!). Many of us are well aware of the spiritual and mental benefits of cultivating gratitude in our lives, but it turns out that these benefits can even extend to physical health.
Truthfully, it’s not always easy (especially in 2020) to look past our problems and practice gratitude. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult!
So is it worth the extra effort? How do we cultivate the habit of gratitude, even when it’s hard?
Why Is It So Hard to Be Grateful?
It sounds so simple to just be grateful, but it turns out that there are biological reasons this process doesn’t come so easily.
Sure, by all measures, if you are reading this on a phone or laptop, your living conditions are better than those in a large majority of the world. You probably got to eat today, likely even food you chose and enjoyed, and you probably have adequate clothing. Yet it is easy to dwell on the financial problems, or the one negative comment on a blog post (*ahem*), or the one thing we wish we could fix about our bodies.
This makes sense from a biological standpoint but makes gratitude difficult. We are wired to pay attention to things that could be potentially negative or harmful as a survival instinct, but in a world of constant input from the internet and social media, this instinct can backfire.
The Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking “if only I had ___ I’d be happy.” Or “if only I didn’t have to deal with ___ I’d be happy,” but this is a vicious cycle…
Psychologist Shawn Anchor explains in this great TED talk that gratitude and happiness are the first step, not the end result. By choosing to be grateful and happy (whether we feel that way at the time or not), we are literally choosing better physical health.
How does this work? Studies of the brain show that grateful feelings increase our sense of wellbeing and relaxation. Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD, explains:
“Heart-felt” emotions—like gratitude, love, and caring—produce sine wave or coherent waves radiating to every cell of the body, all determined through technology that measures changes in heart-rhythm variation and measurements of coherence. Research shows that with “depleted” emotions—like frustration, anger, anxiety, and insecurity—the heart-rhythm pattern becomes more erratic and the brain recognizes this as stress. This in turn creates a desynchronized state, raising the risk of developing heart disease and increased blood pressure, weakening the immune system, impairing cognitive function, and blocking our ability to think clearly.
Over time, this more relaxed state can lead to improved hormone balance and immune function and even decreased rates of disease.
The American Psychological Association backs this up. They found that higher gratitude scores in subjects related to better mood, better sleep, more positive health-promoting habits, less inflammation, and improved heart health.
Even when a problem does come along, gratitude can still help. It is no secret that stress has a negative impact on health, but research is finding that an “attitude of gratitude” can be a successful antidote to even serious external stressors. In one study, cancer patients who were optimistic about their symptoms and outcomes were less likely to experience thickening arteries than those who were pessimistic.
The best news is, being grateful is absolutely free and always available to us! We just have to make it a habit.
An Attitude of Gratitude: Making It Stick
Thankfully, cultivating a grateful attitude is possible, and it can be one of the easiest (and cheapest) changes to make for better health! As this article suggests, a few simple changes can help make gratitude a habit:
- A Daily List – One thing I do daily is to make a list of a few things that I am especially grateful for that particular day. Whether little things like my garden or the dishwasher to big things like my children and wonderful husband, I’ve found that this does help to keep the focus on the many blessings in my life. When done first thing in the morning, this sets the tone for the day and helps me stay positive and cheerful.
- Gratitude Letters – Once in a while, I try to write letters to friends and family members thanking them for their influence in my life and detailing the reasons I am grateful for them.
- Acts of Kindness – Doing a small, unnoticed good deed each day can help boost the natural tendency to be grateful and look for the good in any situation. This could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating to a homeless shelter, or making a meal for someone going through a difficult time.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal – Like an expanded version of the first suggestion, this is a place to regularly collect your thoughts. Review what went well in the day or how others blessed you that day. This would be a great time of year to start a family gratitude habit as well. I’ve heard great things about this journal for kids and hope to do it in our family soon.
- Post Reminders – There are thousands of printables that focus on gratitude. Print some out and put them up around the house, or make your own with the kids! Sometimes we just need the visual reminder to retrain our thoughts and keep us reflecting on the positive.
Counting My Blessings
As Martha Washington said:
I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.
So, if you are grateful for anything today, please share it below in the comments! Five things I’m very grateful for today are:
- My family
- My home
- A good night’s sleep
- Access to healthy food
- You! I feel so blessed to get to “meet” all of the wonderful people and be part of this community. I’ve learned so much from all of you and am so encouraged that together we are creating a more positive future for our kids.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What are you are grateful for today? Share below!
- Kyeong, S., Kim, J., Kim, D. J., Kim, H. E., & Kim, J. J. (2017). Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific reports, 7(1), 5058. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9
- Kini P, Wong J, Mcinnis S, Gabana N, Brown JW. The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage. 2016;128:1-10
- O’Connell BH, Killeen-Byrt M. Psychosocial health mediates the gratitude-physical health link. Psychol Health Med. 2018;23(9):1145-1150. doi: 10.1080/13548506.2018.1469782
- Redwine LS, Henry BL, Pung MA, et al. Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosom Med. 2016;78(6):667-76. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000316