This time of year we’ve all got gratitude on the brain, and if you are attending my Give Thanks- Yoga and Gratitude workshop tonight you get to hear me wax poetic all the ways gratitude has changed my life and little ways you can incorporate this practice into your own.
Of course the idea of giving thanks is a warm and fuzzy concept and many of us consider it a fun practice to go around the dinner table on Thanksgiving and share what we are thankful for. But did you know that cultivating an attitude of gratitude can actually change our bodies, minds, and lives?
One of my favorite things is seeing how scientific studies and research can back up what yogis have known for centuries,
When you focus on the good – the good gets better.
Gratitude is Good for Our Brains
For those of us who did not pay attention in biology class; the hypothalamus is the part of our brain that regulates a number of our bodily functions including our appetites, sleep, temperature, metabolism and growth. A 2009 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed that our hypothalamus is activated when we feel gratitude, or display acts of kindness. This research on gratitude means that although it might be hard to believe—that we literally can’t function without grace. That is a powerful thought.
But gratitude is also addictive—another one of the benefits of gratitude that research has discovered. Not in the customary sense one would associate with that word, however. Acts of kindness and feelings of gratitude flood our brains with a chemical called dopamine. When we are truly grateful for something (or someone) our brains reward us by giving us a natural high. Because this feeling is so good, we are motivated to feel it again and become more inclined to give thanks, and also to do good for others.
Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for —even during the worst times—fosters resilience. It’s understandable that in these dark, violent times, we may sometimes feel that we have less to be thankful for, but perhaps the reason why we feel that way is because we aren’t saying thank you enough.
Gratitude is Good for Our Bodies
In a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers asked people to rate their levels of gratitude, physical health and psychological health, as well as how likely they were to do well being-boosting behaviors like exercise, healthy eating and going to the doctor. They found positive correlations between gratitude and each of these behaviors, suggesting that giving thanks helps people appreciate and care for their bodies.
Gratitude offers us better sleep. “Count blessings, not sheep” Research in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research has found that feeling grateful helps people sleep better and longer. Numerous scientific studies and research on gratitude have all yielded the same result: Gratitude increases the quality of our sleep, decreases the time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens the duration of our sleep.
As mentioned previously, sleep is one of the many vital things controlled by the hypothalamus. Since gratitude activates it (and in fact, our entire limbic system), when we are thankful it becomes easier for us to fall into deep, healthy, natural sleep. This of course has a domino effect on our health, spreading the benefits of gratitude practices even further. For instance, sleep is connected to many bodily functions, and enough of it can remedy anxiety, depression, pain and stress. It also boosts our immune systems—meaning we become healthier overall.
Gratitude is an excellent way to relieve stress. Better sleep, naturally, means that we are more relaxed. While this applies to the weight we carry around from work, financial strain and other emotional disturbances, gratitude is physically good for our hearts and nervous system too. In a 2007 study that speaks to the benefits of gratitude, patients with hypertension were made to count their blessings once a week. Results showed a significant decrease in their systolic blood pressure. This gratitude research also discovered that writing in a gratitude journal (often) can reduce blood pressure by 10%.
In a different research study on gratitude (by McCraty and Colleagues in 1998), subjects were made to cultivate appreciation. Twenty-three percent showed a decrease in cortisol—the most prominent stress hormone. Even more impressive is that 80% of participants showed changes in heart rate variability; a direct result of reduced stress levels.
Gratitude increases our natural energy levels. With all of the benefits of gratitude that have been mentioned here, does it come as a surprise that gratitude makes us stronger? There are many hypotheses supporting why exactly gratitude makes us healthier—from stronger immune systems thanks to sleep, to healthier hearts due to less stress, and even to the more spiritual theories—such as being thankful makes us more optimistic and that in itself boosts our vitality. Gratitude research has repeatedly shown that thankful people have higher energy levels, are more relaxed, are happier and are healthier. Naturally, these gratitude benefits lead us to the conclusion that being grateful has the potential to lengthen our lifespans.
Gratitude is Good for Our Hearts
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
According to a study in the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, feeling grateful toward your partner — and vice versa — can improve numerous aspects of your relationship, including feelings of connected-ness and overall satisfaction as a couple. “Having a partner that’s grateful for you or you being grateful for the other” can both help your love life, says Emma Seppälä, a happiness researcher at Stanford and Yale Universities and author of The Happiness Track.
Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a pro-social manner, even when others behave less kindly, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs—a major factor in reduced self-esteem—grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if gratitude makes us healthier due to the power of positivity, or if the dopamine in our brains sets off a chain reaction that ignites the benefits of gratitude. Every study done on the subject of gratitude research has indisputable evidence that gratitude benefits our bodies, minds and souls.
What positive benefits have you seen from giving thanks throughout your day or throughout your year?
Is it something you like to focus on consistently, or just at the end of the year?
I’d love to know more about all the beautiful things in your life, so feel free to post whatever it is you are grateful for right now in the comments!