Every year as the holidays approach, we are reminded now more than ever of the importance of being grateful. Many people do not understand what it means to give thanks and why gratitude matters in our modern world. However, researchers are beginning to recognize an association between gratitude and wellness. Understanding how these are related helps us understand how we can harness the power of appreciation for good health!
You have most likely heard that it is good to be grateful. Being thankful for what you have is a quality that many people admire and appreciate. Showing thanks is considered a great social skill that spreads love and positivity to others. Therefore, one can define gratitude in one of two distinct ways. First, it is the act of showing appreciation towards another person to reciprocate kindness. This may be in the form of a thank you card, congratulations, or simply saying the words “thank you.” The second way gratitude is defined is as an emotion that one experiences. This emotional experience is what specialists call “connective gratitude,” It is described as experiencing feelings of love and awe (1).
Plenty of people only view gratitude like the first definition – an action (2). However, researchers are begging to find added benefits for physical and mental health by experiencing the connective state of appreciation. When we experience connective gratitude, it can improve our sense of well-being (3). Researchers have formed a method that allows them to measure appreciation – the most common way is the McCullough Questionnaire. It is a tool used by psychologists and researchers to rank a person's ability to experience feelings of gratitude daily (4). By using tools like this to investigate people’s relative experiences with gratefulness, we now understand more than ever before how feeling grateful can positively impact your mental and physical health!
More people than ever before are beginning to wonder how gratitude positively impacts the brain. Experts estimate that roughly 16.2 million US adults experience major depressive episodes every year (5). Often those who struggle with depression become fixated on negative experiences from the past. Researchers are finding that practicing gratitude helps those who struggle with depression to have a more positive outlook on their lives by spending more time focused on what they like rather than that which they don’t. This shift in perspective helps those struggling with depression (6). Additionally, in a recent study, participants asked to write down things they were grateful for each week reported that they had less trouble dealing with daily frustrations and let downs than those who did not (7).
Something that we all deal with is stress – and when left unchecked, it can cause a host of complications in the body. Cortisol, nicknamed the “stress hormone, is often released in the body when we experience stressful events. However, in our modern world, many people struggle with chronic stress as cortisol levels remain high (8). Researchers found that cortisol levels decreased by about 23% for those practicing connective gratitude compared to other participants that did not (9). Those same individuals also reported feeling more at ease throughout the day. It is by reducing the amount of cortisol in the body that allows gratitude to help reduce feelings of stress.
Another benefit of practicing regular gratitude is that it might help to improve your immune health! Our immune system is what fights off infection and disease that may enter the body. The Immune system also helps to heal our bodies from routine damage. When we experience high stress, our immune systems can weaken, putting us at a higher risk of health issues. Stress typically puts the immune system at-risk by causing inflammation. Studies about people who practiced gratitude regularly reported having less sickness. One study also found that when individuals did this, they had fewer symptoms of congestion than those who were not practicing gratitude (10).
One thing that many people want is to lose weight. With all of the weight loss advice out there, you may think you have heard about every tip and trick – but have you considered gratitude? One study found that people who experienced gratefulness daily lowered their saturated fats intake by an average of 25% (11)! Likewise, the way that gratitude decreases the amount of cortisol in the body would assist in the wight-loss process. Cortisol is known to cause retention of body fat, which is why reducing cortisol by practicing gratitude might also speed up your weight loss efforts!
This year has opened our eyes to the value of protecting our physical and mental health, which is why we believe gratitude is a powerful addition to your life. The many ways it can help you feel better, both inside and out, makes it a powerful way to potentially improve your life. If you are wondering how to practice gratitude, you can try one of the most popular methods by keeping a journal. Having a gratitude journal allows you to reflect on the things that you appreciate about your life. Practicing gratitude can also be achieved through meditation or simply counting your blessings before you go to bed at night. The key is to find what works best for you.