How much could your life change if you practiced more gratitude?
According to research, a lot! Studies show gratitude improves our physical and mental health, relationships, and self-esteem.
Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California and a leading scientific expert on gratitude, recognizes two main components of gratitude.
First, gratitude helps override our mind’s negativity bias. Humans tend to remember negative events better than positive ones and think about negative things more often. Research shows we make decisions mostly based on negative information.
Common theories suggest this bias is a result of evolution. When danger lurked around every cave, cautious people were more likely to survive. Now that we spend most of our time in safe surroundings, this outdated level of protectiveness can distract us from the positives.
A gratitude practice makes a habit of looking for the good things.
The second component prompts us to look outside ourselves.
“…I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives,” Emmons said in Greater Good Magazine.
This perspective shift strengthens our social and spiritual connections and is a natural stress reducer.
The benefits of a gratitude practice far outweigh the minimal time and effort required. Emmons suggests that integrating gratitude into your everyday life is enough to make a difference without adding anything specific to your to-do list.
Whether you spend more time in gratitude as you go about your day or develop a more formal gratitude practice, you may be surprised at the significant benefits.
Improved Mental Health
It’s no surprise that gratitude makes us happier and more optimistic. But how?
It starts in the brain.
According to studies cited by PositivePsychology.com, gratitude changes neural structures, acting as a catalyst for “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine to increase happiness, and it reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
Emmons found that being grateful keeps us more present, magnifying positive emotions as we focus on what we have rather than what we lack. Dwelling on what we lack can deplete your energy and generate fear of the unknown.
This is significant because our minds crave the excitement and emotions of newness. Think of the last time you got something you really wanted, like a shiny new tech gadget. The initial excitement wears off quickly. Gratitude effectively extends the lifespan of these initial good feelings, raising awareness of all the good things in our lives, including those we can easily take for granted, like beautiful trees and flowers outside our window, easy access to food and clean drinking water, and all the entertainment options at our fingertips.
Gratitude brings to our awareness how lucky we are to have these things and resources in our lives, helping us not take these significant positives for granted.
Additionally, gratitude blocks unsupportive emotions because it is impossible to simultaneously feel conflicting emotions like anxiety and gratitude. We’re also less likely to compare ourselves to others, sometimes known as “compare and despair.”
Being grateful improves our self-worth and self-esteem too. Remembering the ways people are good to us appears to raise our sense of value.
Expressing consistent gratitude balances our energy and hormones and drastically shifts how we interpret and interact with the world around us—promoting calm and peace of mind.
Simply stated, gratitude brings us joy. In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown shares that everyone with a “deep capacity for joy” practices gratitude.
Gratitude is a celebration of the good in our lives.
Improved Physical Health
According to the National Institutes of Health, the psychological benefits of gratitude positively influence our physical health.
When we feel better about ourselves and our lives, we naturally engage in healthier habits and activities, such as regular exercise, eating well, and spending time outside. The effect of gratitude steers us away from unhealthy habits like smoking and can make it easier to quit. Nicotine in cigarette smoke activates the release of dopamine, the same “feel good” hormone we get from gratitude.
The study also found that people who embraced gratitude were more likely to seek help for health concerns, resulting in more beneficial preventative care.
Research from the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that gratitude improves the quality of our sleep. Negative thoughts impair sleep, and positive thoughts improve sleep. So, we sleep better and longer when we end the day with gratitude.
Count your blessings before you nod off each night.
Feeling grateful toward one another increases overall relationship satisfaction.
“…Gratitude is a social emotion,” Emmons said. “I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.” In fact, feeling grateful alone helps us feel less lonely and isolated.
Emmons found that gratitude makes us more generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing, creating friendships and bonding us.
According to The Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing, living in gratitude makes us more likely to perceive people’s actions in a positive light and encourages us to be more helpful, especially to those for whom we feel grateful.
Expressing gratitude to others is the key to tapping into its relationship-strengthening power. People like grateful people, and they love feeling appreciated.
Gratitude connects us.
To learn more about how you can apply gratitude to your daily life, check out How to Make Gratitude a Daily Practice.