Developing an attitude of gratitude can improve your life

Stock image courtesy of St. George Health & Wellness Magazine, St. George News

FEATURE — Who or what in your life inspires gratitude? You can probably tick off a host of answers: the music of your child’s laughter; an unexpected smile; a kind word of encouragement from a stranger; a Southern Utah sunset’s fierce beauty. We’re all blessed in abundant ways.

Stock image courtesy of St. George Health & Wellness Magazine, St. George News

As we slide into the holiday season, it is once again time to call to mind the multitude of reasons to give thanks, from the mundane to the magnificent. Turns out, there are ample reasons to do so. A tsunami of research suggests that being grateful is actually good for you, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  

According to those in the know at the Mayo Clinic, studies have shown that “feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood and immunity. Gratitude can decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain and risk of disease.” 

So convincing is the research into the benefits of being thankful that the Mayo Clinic actually hosts a free, online, self-guided “Practice Gratitude” program. Participants think about what makes them feel grateful and journal it daily with the goal of exercising and strengthening the gratitude “muscle,” much as one might pump up biceps and quads at the gym.

Too “woo-woo” for you? There’s science to back it up. Positive gestures benefit you by releasing oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and blasted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. In the same way that endorphins and serotonin are mood-boosters, oxytocin promotes a sense of positivity. And can’t we all use more of that?

University of California, Los Angeles research teams have drawn similar conclusions about the effects of gratitude on physical and mental health. Responses from more than 25,000 people linked higher levels of gratitude with lower levels of depression. It also showed that keeping the type of gratitude journal recommended by the Mayo Clinic causes “a significant drop in diastolic blood pressure – the force your heart exerts between beats.”

Just entertaining grateful thoughts (even if you don’t put pen to paper), the UCLA researchers added, is also heart-healthy, as your breathing tends to slow down and syncs with your ticker when you ponder the positive.

Harvard Health Publishing offers these tips for cultivating gratitude:

  • Write a thank-you note. Write a thank-you letter or email expressing your enjoyment of and appreciation for someone’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person, if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. 
  • Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you and mentally thank the individual.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one your thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.
  • Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.
  • Pray. If you’re religious, you can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. You can focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”) or on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound).

Dr. Joel Wong, professor of counseling and counseling psychology at Indiana University’s School of Education, devotes much of his time to the study of gratitude and its effects on the human body. In tandem with the delivery of traditional psychotherapy to study groups, his research has included the monitoring of brain activity before and after a subset of participants wrote letters of gratitude to people who had shown them some type of kindness.

Stock image courtesy of St. George Health & Wellness Magazine, St. George News

His conclusion: “When we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. Practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, (which) could contribute to improved mental health over time.”

While few of us will have our prefrontal cortexes probed in such a way, Wong has published a list of 100 gratitude prompts that may well rev up your own positive brain waves.

The questions range from micro topics (What are some things in my home that give me a sense of comfort? What do I like about the weather this week?) to macro topics (Who or what changed my life for the better? Which childhood event in my life contributed positively to my current life?) to gratitude “savoring” (What do I enjoy about the food/beverage I eat/drink? What do I appreciate about the view outside of my window?) to interpersonal gratitude (Who do I enjoy hanging out with? Who appreciates me?). 

This season is the perfect time to take stock of your life, identify the people and things that bring you joy and feed your soul, and give thanks for each one of them. And don’t forget to tell those people how much they mean to you and how they’ve enriched your life. Even if you’re a couch potato, plan to give your gratitude muscle a daily workout.

You can register for the Mayo Clinic’s “Practice Gratitude” program by clicking here


This article was originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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