“Appreciate how rare and full of potential your situation is in this world, then take joy in it, and use it to your best advantage.”
This quote perfectly captures the idea of gratitude. Of course, you’d expect nothing less from a man who lives in a profound state of enlightenment every day of his life. But this is more than just a beautiful quote from a smart, spiritual man. It’s a statement that you (yes, you!) can use to change your life.
What Is Gratitude?
Gratitude has become something of a hip term in recent years, but you’ve probably long been told by your parents “just be grateful you have food to eat and a roof over your head.”
The dictionary defines the gratitude as: “being appreciative of benefits received.”
In other words, gratitude is all about being thankful for what you do have, instead of dwelling on what you don’t have. Because when you constantly think about what you lack in life, it can make you feel miserable, affecting your mental health, your self-esteem, and even your relationships. On the other hand, when you consciously feel blessed and thankful for the good in your life, this can spill positively into those same areas.
This isn’t just some wacky, “happy theory.” Gratitude is now being backed by science for its very real health and wellness benefits.
Dr. Robert Emmons — one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude — defines gratitude as a two-fold process:
- Gratitude is first an affirmation of goodness – we affirm there are good things we’ve received in the world, like gifts and benefits.
- We’re able to recognize this goodness in our lives comes from outside ourselves – that other people have given us these gifts to help us achieve goodness in our lives.”1
So, What Can Gratitude Do For You?
Being happy for what you have isn’t about settling for your lot in life and assuming you can never change it. Strangely enough, the more people practice gratitude, the greater the number of positive things they seem to draw into their lives.
Here are five incredible ways gratitude can make you happier:
1. It Strengthens Your Relationships
Gratitude isn’t about thanking yourself. When you’re truly thankful, it’s because other people have helped you out.
You’re thankful your workmate told your boss how hard you work. You’re thankful your daughter slept in this morning and allowed you more sleep. You’re thankful your best friend bought you lunch. You’re thankful you were given enough work this month to pay the rent.
All of these things are attributed to other people. And help you to see how lucky you are for those relationships in your life – relationships may unintentionally get lost in the clutter and speed of everyday activities.
One study on gratitude and relationships had older sorority sisters give gifts to new sorority sisters. This, of course, made the newbies thankful, because – gifts, yay! But something more interesting happened as well. The researchers found it went beyond this and, in the long term, actually brought the pairs of women closer together. They determined gratitude promotes stronger relationships because when people are grateful for something someone has done for them, they feel appreciated and want to maintain those relationships.2
2. It Bolsters Your Barrier Against Stress and Negativity
Numerous studies have determined gratefulness promotes positive emotions, like joy, enthusiasm, love, and optimism; and this may successfully protect from those nasty, “destructive” emotions, like envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.
Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Robin Stern determine in their paper, Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention, that this is because “gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and pathological conditions.”3 You simply can’t be both at once.
In a scientific study on this phenomenon, volunteers were randomly assigned to keep gratitude journals, writing down just 5 things a week they were thankful for. At the end of the study, the volunteers reported that they felt better about their lives as a whole, as well as more optimistic about their week ahead. This was compared to a control group, who wrote down only hassles, or neutral events, happening in their lives.4
And so, a more positive outlook can help you to better stay above daily stress.
3. It Improves Self-Esteem
It seems only logical that if you can keep stress and negative energy at bay, you can protect your self-esteem. When you’re feeling grateful and blessed, it’s impossible to feel as if the world is against you, or to compare yourself negatively to other people. When you’re grateful, you feel like life is on your side.
A 2014 sports psychology study looked at gratitude and the self-esteem of athletes. This is pretty important, as confidence is an important factor in mental toughness and overall athletic success. The results found athletes with a higher sense of gratitude were able to increase their self-esteem.5
Another study showed those who are more spiritual or religious may have a lower susceptibility to mental illness or addiction, both actively tied to self-esteem. This is because – no matter your beliefs – a focus on the idea that someone is genuinely looking out for you is a powerful form of gratitude.6
4. It Increases Resilience to Trauma
The Dalai Lama can attest to this one, after losing his entire country: gratitude may help you to better overcome trauma, as it can help undo negative psychological states.
One study focusing on gratitude and PTSD, zeroed in on 522 Israeli youth who live in a city constantly under missile attack. Often, their schooling was canceled, and they had to spend a lot of time hiding out in bomb shelters.
Researchers found life satisfaction was the main shield against PTSD for these teens. This life satisfaction – their happiness surrounding family, school, and life prospects – was improved by gratitude, which helped them to see their lives in a new light.7
Another study involving students in the aftermath of 9/11 yielded similar results.8
5. It Increases Physical Well-Being
Gratitude may even influence your physical health. This idea isn’t far-fetched, because your body and your mind are so intricately linked.
A study of almost 1,000 Swiss adults ranging from 19 to 84 years-of-age, found physical health was strongly linked to living more gratefully. The volunteers self-reported far better physical health while practicing gratitude.
Researchers linked this back to their psychological health because when you have better mental health, you’re more likely to exercise and take better care of yourself physically. Those living under a mountain of self-destructive behaviors are prone to do quite the opposite.9
Gratitude may also help you to sleep better – providing better quality sleep, longer sleep duration, and most importantly, better daytime functioning (goodbye fatigue and foggy brains!).10
Researchers now know enough about sleep to understand it’s absolutely essential for good physical health. In fact, experts say adults need at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night in order to remain in good physical health, and to allow the body to heal and repair.11
How To Practice Gratitude
Gratitude is a free tool everyone has access to. You don’t need to buy a book or download an app to start practicing now.
One of the easiest, and most powerful, ways is to start a gratitude journal.
A gratitude journal is just a notebook, where you write down what you are grateful for. It’s best if you do this on a daily basis, as it tends to keep you more balanced and gives less time for those nasty negatives to slip in.
Find a few minutes each day – perhaps first thing in the morning with your coffee, or last thing at night before you turn off your light – and start simply.
Write down three things you are grateful for. It’s often more powerful to also briefly write why you are grateful for each thing, as this draws your attention back to why it makes you feel so good. That’s it! It really is that simple.
The Power of a Gratitude Practice
The power of gratitude, as with meditation, is the cumulative effect over time. Your first attempt at creating a gratitude list might feel a little pointless, but before long, those mindfulness musings will start to have a positive effect on your mind.
The benefits of gratitude far outweigh not being appreciative in life, and there are absolutely no negative side-effects. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get you started …
Today, I am grateful for: (fill in the blanks)
For more health wisdom from Eastern philosophies and the Urban Monk, keep reading here:
The Strange Mystery and Benefits of Kefir
What is Feng Shui? (and how to improve your life with it!)
5 Ways Meditation Can Make You Happier (and improve your health!)