Let’s talk about first things first—the title of this blog is intentionally named “practicing gratitude” rather than “being grateful” or just “Gratitude Brings Health Benefits.” Nobody is born grateful, and expressing gratitude doesn’t come naturally to very many people. In order for gratitude to become a regular part of our life, it’s something that must be learned—and practiced in order to learn.

While this fact might be disappointing for some, such as those who prefer to press “the easy button” and have their desire immediately granted, the truth that gratitude must be learned and practiced should be seen as good news for all of us. It means that the art of thankfulness isn’t something that some people possess and some people don’t. We can all be thankful! And, thankfully, (pun intended) that means we can all reap the physical and mental health benefits that gratitude brings.

Feeling gratitude every now and then or showing gratitude one time isn’t going to bring the kind of health benefits we’re talking about. Remember, habits take time to build. We don’t do push-ups one time and expect bulging biceps. The same goes for any kind of habit—it takes time and consistent repetition for it to become an ingrained part of us and our life. How long will it take? We talk about that in our blog “These Healthy Habits Could Help You Live Longer.

In this blog, we’re going to define gratitude, talk about how to feel it and how to express it, and reveal some of the many health benefits it provides.

What Is Gratitude? What Does It Mean?

According to researchers at Harvard, “the word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context).” We could say that “gratitude” includes all of these meanings, and in the context of this blog, “gratitude” is defined as a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.

When we are grateful, we acknowledge the goodness in our life. Typically, we recognize that the source of that goodness is at least partially external. As a result, being grateful helps us connect to something larger than ourselves—whether that connection is to other people, nature, or a higher power.

How Does Gratitude Work? How Does It Look/Feel?

Gratitude is more than a fleeting “thank you” when someone does something nice for us. It’s also about more than being polite or showing good manners. It’s a way of life, a kind of mindfulness, where we intentionally and regularly focus on the positive aspects of Life in general and of our life in particular. We take time to feel thankful, acknowledge what we are thankful for, and if other people are involved, we also express gratitude to them for the role they play(ed)—whatever that might be.

Gratitude is a cycle of feeling good. We choose to focus on something positive, and we start to feel good. Then we express those positive feelings toward others, and they respond positively. Their kind behavior toward us feels good and inspires additional gratitude—and so the neural activity goes, releasing the natural feel-good chemicals in our brain that indeed make us, well, feel good!

Remember, gratitude is not a trait people are born with; it’s something we practice and develop into a habit that will eventually come naturally to us.

Gratitude and the brain

How Do I Practice Gratitude?

UCLA Health offers these tips for practicing gratitude:

  1. Writing it down: Take time either at night or in the morning to write down something that went well. Dedicate a notebook or journal to gratitude so you can reflect and remind yourself of those moments.
  2. Hitting pause: Many of us reflexively say, “thanks” often. Next time you hear yourself say it, stop and pinpoint precisely what you are thankful for.
  3. Redirecting your thoughts: You may feel negative or frustrated during the day. When that happens, step back and shift your focus to a positive aspect of the situation.
  4. Sharing your gratitude: Send a quick note telling someone why you are thankful for them or encourage your family to share something they’re grateful for each night at dinner.

There are all kinds of ways to feel and express gratitude, so find a method that works for you. The most important thing is to make time for gratitude everyday. The more you practice anything, the better you become at it. A daily moment or time of feeling and expressing gratitude will usually be more beneficial in the long run than the method itself.

Research and the Health Benefits of Gratitude

Just as the more time and effort we devote to physical exercise, the better the return in terms of physical benefit, the health benefits of gratitude similarly depend on the amount of attention and practice we put into feeling and expressing gratitude. Here are some possible benefits and ways that practicing gratitude can potentially help improve our life. (For more information and the research that supports this information, click here.)

Physical Benefits:

  • Improves sleep quality
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Helps keep glucose levels under control

Research on gratitude

Mental and Emotional Benefits:

  • Increases self-confidence, patience, and resiliency
  • Reduces feelings of envy, jealousy, and anger
  • Boosts vitality and energy
  • Contributes to happiness and improves the way we perceive experiences
  • Makes us more optimistic and less materialistic

Social Benefits:

  • Helps strengthen romantic relationships
  • Improves relationships with friends
  • Strengthens family support
  • Attracts people with the same outlook on life
  • Cultivates a sense of belonging and fulfillment

Workplace Benefits:

  • Increases willingness to stay with a company longer
  • Improves productivity
  • Enhances management capabilities
  • Builds better relationships among coworkers
  • Improves decision-making skills

Gratitude Leads to Health and Happiness

Studies have shown that gratitude is associated with better health and greater happiness. Gratitude helps us feel more constructive emotions, cherish good experiences, improve our health, handle adversity, and create strong relationships. All of these are factors in living a happier life.

However, it’s important to point out that while gratitude can help the battle against depression, it is not a cure. Incorporating the practice of gratitude produces positive experiences, reducing stress-causing hormones while increasing “feel-good” hormones. Gratitude can also strengthen personal relationships, which can serve as a helpful support system for someone suffering from depression.

Similarly, gratitude can help people in recovery, but it is not a lone cure for substance use disorder. Many people are more consistent in their recovery journey when they incorporate the practice of gratitude into their rehabilitation treatment. This is because a grateful mindset counteracts selfish thoughts and behaviors, encouraging us to develop humility and productive behaviors instead.

Contact AMP@mchdt.org to bring a wellness session on the Benefits of Gratitude to your worksite.