I remember hearing someone say we should celebrate love every day, not just once a year on Valentine’s Day. I feel the same way about gratitude. Although it’s great that, in the United States, the fourth Thursday of November is dedicated to giving thanks, I encourage you to show and feel appreciation every day of the year.
Counting your blessings is a time-honored way to flourish. It’s been part of almost every culture and spiritual practice, going back millennia. And, science shows what the ancients knew intuitively – that grateful people are likely to be much happier and healthier than their pessimistic counterparts. For example, expressing gratitude enhances your energy levels and reduces stress. Plus, recognizing and appreciating life’s many blessings is one of the most powerful ways I know of to enhance your immune system, balance your hormones, and promote heart health.
How Practicing Gratitude Makes You Healthier, Smarter and More Energetic
Heart-centered feelings, like gratitude and appreciation, can bring about beneficial physiologic changes in your body in a very short amount of time. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of many studies and books on gratitude, including Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. He has found through decades of research that people who practice gratitude daily report higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy than those who don’t.
Emmons, and fellow researcher Michael E. McCullough, Director of the Evolution of Human Behavior Lab and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, created a protocol for studying gratitude, which they used to measure emotional, social, and physical well-being in participants. They divided their cohort into three groups and asked participants to make entries in a journal. Group 1 wrote the things they were grateful for; Group 2 wrote about hassles or irritants; and Group 3 reported on events or circumstances that affected them, both positive and negative.
In the first study using this protocol, Emmons and McCullough followed nearly 200 healthy college students who made weekly entries in their journals (up to five entries each week). The individuals in Group 1, who focused on counting their blessings, felt better about their lives overall and were more optimistic about the upcoming week, when compared to the other groups.
The study was repeated with: 1) another set of college students, who made daily entries for two weeks; 2) adults with neuromuscular disorders, who made daily entries for three weeks; and 3) adolescents (in 6th and 7th grade), who made daily entries for two weeks and a three-week follow-up entry. (Jeffry Froh, Psych.D., Professor at Hofstra University, was the lead researcher on the adolescent study.) Group 1 was the happiest and most optimistic in all three studies. In fact, researchers concluded that counting your blessings and expressing gratitude can increase happiness levels in adults by about 25 percent – or possibly more! (This wasn’t calculated for the adolescents.)
9 Side Effects of Practicing Gratitude
The studies also showed that a regular practice of gratitude produces some other beneficial “side effects.” They learned that regularly expressing gratitude may help you:
- Cultivate a better attitude. The middle school children who participated in the daily exercise of writing down the things they were grateful for showed higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, and energy. They were also more likely to think about school and their family life favorably. Adults who regularly expressed gratitude also seemed to feel more optimistic and had higher levels of contentment and satisfaction in life.
- Reach personal and professional goals. Studies show that there is an increased likelihood of reaching your goals, including academic, personal, health-related, and relationship goals. Students who are grateful tend to have higher GPAs and have an easier time socially. In addition, employees who regularly hear words of gratitude from their managers may be motivated to work harder. In this respect, gratitude seems to make you smarter, more self-aware, healthier, and even more personable.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle. People with grateful dispositions are more likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle, including exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and doing what they can to support their health.
- Connect with others. When you’re happy with your own life, you’re more likely to connect with others. The happiest people tend to have strong, complex social networks and are more likely to feel loved and cared for by others. These include not only family and friends, but also connections of an altruistic and spiritual nature. Plus, I’ve often said that community equals immunity. Numerous studies have shown that the more social connections you have, the more robust your immune system is likely to be.
- Improve your relationships. Expressing gratitude for your partner or close family members can help you feel more satisfied in your relationships. Gratitude for a partner has been shown to help newlyweds adjust to marital life and to contribute to satisfying long-term marriages.
- Stop the fight-or-flight response. Feelings of appreciation and gratitude result in cardiac coherence—the beat to beat variability of your heart rate. The result is a more perfect balance between the sympathetic nervous system (the gas) and the parasympathetic nervous system (the brake). When these are in balance, your body stops over-producing cortisol and other stress hormones. Cardiac coherence has also been shown to increase the production of the hormone DHEA, which is a building block for all the other steroid hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and androgen.
- Sleep better. People who express gratitude before going to bed tend to sleep better. Researchers believe this is because grateful people tend not to worry as much or think negative thoughts and are more likely to think positive thoughts that support sleep quality.
- Create overall health. When your body is in a constant state of panic from stress or dragged down by negative emotions, you are more prone to headaches, muscle aches and pains, a weakened immune system, depression, and poor sleep. Long term, this unabated stress can create cellular inflammation, the root cause of all chronic health conditions, including heart disease. However, studies show that people who practice gratitude regularly have lower blood pressure, which may reduce the likelihood of sudden death from congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease.
- Bounce back from setbacks. An attitude of gratitude helps you become more resilient when confronted by life’s inevitable setbacks – big and small. Giving thanks when you feel stressed can even help prevent PTSD.
10 Easy Ways to Practice Gratitude Every Day
Practicing gratitude for as little as 15–20 seconds can lower stress hormones, increase the flow of oxygen to every cell of your body, and harmonize your heart’s rhythms with your body’s other systems. If all of this happens when you focus for just 15–20 seconds on something that brings you pleasure, joy, or a feeling of gratitude, imagine what would happen to your health—and our world—if you were able to cultivate and express gratitude and appreciation on a regular basis. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Here are 10 ways you can cultivate gratitude every day:
- Say “thank you.” I remember years ago, my father said to me, “Gratitude is the first thing forgotten.” With the stress and intensity of today’s world, it’s easy to forget to say “thank you.” Because we are all connected, this has much farther-reaching implications than you might realize. But, imagine if 1,000 normally negative or critical people practiced gratitude and human-kindness for just one day. The ripple effect could touch hundreds of thousands of people—and literally uplift countless individuals. So, try saying “thank you” to someone you appreciate, even if it’s for something very small. Do this often until it becomes a habit. You can also write “thank you” notes. This can be in the form of a letter or a simple email or text. It will not only you make you happier, but will nurture your relationship with the other person. I also like the idea of sending at least one gratitude letter a month – this can even be to yourself!
- List your blessings. Making a list is a great way to count your blessings and feel grateful. Start by making a list of all the people in your life for whom you are grateful, including family, friends, work colleagues, wait staff at your favorite restaurant, and close advisors. Let your list expand organically. As you begin to picture all of the people in your life, such as the person on the end of the customer support hotline, or the stranger who smiled at you while you were at your favorite coffee stop, you may be amazed by how much help and support you have in your life.
You can do the same exercise for the things you are grateful for that are easy to take for granted such as heat, electricity, and clean water. The more you notice the people and things you are grateful for, the more of them you’ll attract.
- Start a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down whatever you feel grateful for each day, such as people in your life, a beautiful tree or just about anything. Remember, being grateful for the little things helps you cultivate a spirit of gratitude in your daily life.
- Appreciate yourself. Take a moment right now to look back and acknowledge everything you are and everything you do. Notice how far you’ve come since last year, last month or even last week. Journaling is a great way to keep track of this kind of information. The point is to update your “self-appreciation circuits” regularly and genuinely.
- Create gratitude touchstones. Write your favorite memories or experiences on index cards and keep them close at hand as gratitude touchstones. Your gratitude touchstones can be your spouse, your sleeping child, a beautiful place in nature, a favorite pet, an exciting trip, or even a special moment with a friend.
- Try a gratitude challenge. Last year I participated in a 365 grateful challenge where every day for an entire year I acknowledged and shared something I am grateful for. You can do this on social media, tell a friend, or simply write down what you are grateful for in your journal. Or, if you want another type of gratitude challenge, try to abstain from complaining for 24 hours!
- Give monetary and material offerings. In ancient cultures, the practice of tithing – giving 10 percent of your income to your place of worship – was standard practice. It was believed by many people that giving 10 percent of your income would increase your wealth tenfold. Today, giving monetary and material offerings to a source of inspiration or to those less fortunate is a tangible way to show gratitude. And, as the Law of Attraction would have it, a great way to bring abundance to yourself as well. Choose organizations that inspire and uplift you and that you believe in.
- Have regular “rampages of appreciation.” Esther Hicks, who shares the teachings of “Abraham,” suggests having regular rampages of appreciation to elicit joy. I second that suggestion! Appreciation and gratitude are the best ways to turn around a bad mood in about two minutes.
- Pray. Prayers helps to cultivate gratitude. To make it even more powerful, you can use a gratitude prayer, or as Emmons suggests, pray for the ability to feel grateful.
- Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. When you meditate, try focusing on something you are grateful for now. This can be something that you are grateful for every day such as enough food to eat, your home, family and friends, or a big event, such as a promotion.
Gratitude leads to joy. When you count your blessings on a regular basis, they will multiply many, many times over. In addition, opening your heart to those less fortunate creates joy and blessings in the world, and the likelihood that those you express gratitude towards will pay it forward.
Do you have a regular gratitude practice? If so, what changes have you noticed in your life?