Practicing gratitude has positive impacts on our health and well-being

Research shows that giving thanks all year long (and throughout our lives) is good for mental and physical health and functioning.

For many people, the holidays are a time of giving thanks and noticing that for which we are grateful. Some mention precious friends and family members — those living and those who have passed — while others might express gratitude for a warm meal prepared with love. While these expressions of gratitude may be common during the holiday season, it’s also common to let the busyness and stress of regular daily life distract us from noticing and practicing these simple yet important expressions of gratitude throughout the year.

Why is this important?

Researchers and educators who study gratitude encourage us to find ways to practice feeling and expressing gratitude on a regular basis; as well as to encourage children and youth to do the same. Practicing gratitude doesn’t just feel good, it also impacts our mental, emotional and physical health in several important ways. Here are examples of the positive benefits of practicing gratitude drawn largely from the research of Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and Michael McCullough, Ph,D.:

  • Feeling thankful and appreciative has a calming effect on our brains and bodies by releasing chemicals which foster feelings of contentment and that encourage motivation.
  • People who focused on things they were grateful for and kept a gratitude journal reported exercising more, experienced fewer physical symptoms of illness, were more optimistic and felt better about their overall lives than those who focused on negative or neutral things.
  • People who practiced gratitude made more progress toward their academic, relationship and health goals.
  • Practicing gratitude on a daily basis increased pro-social motivation and participants reported offering others emotional support or help with personal problems.
  • Participants who had chronic diseases reported sleeping better and feeling more refreshed upon awakening.
  • Young people who engaged in daily gratitude practices showed increases in alertness, attentiveness, enthusiasm, energy and determination.
  • Children who were encouraged to practice gratitude and thankfulness showed a more positive attitude toward school — and their minds and brains were more open and ready to learn.
  • Several gratitude studies have shown links to depression. In short, the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., practicing gratitude involves more than having an “attitude of gratitude.” It involves an active process of self-reflection about what’s really important to us and then bringing these things to life through gratitude journals, meditation, prayer, the process of creating art, movement, singing or simply saying aloud to ourselves or others what we are grateful for. Contrary to popular thinking, these don’t need to be big or dramatic things or moments. Our deepest feelings of gratitude are often connected to the simple, small, sweet every day experiences of life like noticing the shape of a tree, the softness of a pillow underneath our head, the smell of a loved one’s hair, the interesting ideas in a book we’re reading, the sound of a child’s laughter or the taste of a favorite food in our mouth.

You can practice gratitude by simply shifting your focus to what you feel thankful, appreciative, blessed or grateful for on a daily or weekly basis. You can also consider integrating gratitude into your mindfulness or self-compassion practices.

Michigan State University Extension provides emotional resiliency resources to help you learn more about mindfulness in the workplace, formal and informal mindfulness practices, and offers educational sessions called Stress Less with Mindfulness

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