With the new year, a lot of people ponder what changes they might make in their lives to improve their health or their happiness. Maybe you resolve to start some healthy habits like exercising more and eating better. Or perhaps you intend to spend more time with loved ones or on a cherished hobby. All of these are worthwhile goals, but there’s another simple habit that might also benefit your overall wellbeing: practicing gratitude.
Researching the benefits of gratitude
Numerous research studies have found that expressing gratitude can improve your mental and physical health. For example, it has been found that the consistent practice of gratitude, such as writing in a gratitude journal, is correlated to improvements in wellbeing over time for everyone from healthy adults, to heart patients, to people with inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and even Vietnam War veterans with PTSD.
Among the other issues that practicing gratitude has been found by researchers to help:
- Improving sleep: A 2011 study out of Grant MacEwan University in Canada found that people who wrote in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes each evening slept better and longer.
- Reducing depression: In 2021, researchers in Australia analyzed the results of 70 studies on a total of 26,427 children and adults and found that those who experience higher levels of gratitude had lower levels of depression.
- Decreasing anxiety: Research has shown that practicing gratitude can be useful in treating anxiety, PTSD, and certain phobias by retraining the brain to focus on more positive thoughts instead of the negative ones.
- Lowering stress levels: Gratitude-focused writing during the pandemic was shown to reduce stress, possibly by lowering stress hormones in the body, like cortisol.
- Boosting heart health: A 2019 review of previous studies was conducted by Australian researchers, who found a connection between expressing gratitude and lower blood pressure.
What does “practicing gratitude” really mean?
Gratitude is about being satisfied and appreciative for the many positive aspects of our lives. Perhaps because it is natural human instinct to covet what we lack, gratitude is something we must practice, especially if we want it to become a habit.
To develop a more grateful mindset, it is helpful to cultivate our practice of gratitude throughout the day. It might feel a bit contrived initially, but as you form the habit, gratitude will flow more naturally. For instance:
- While most of us reflexively say “thank you” when someone gives us something — the store clerk, the restaurant server, even a loved one — try slowing down and really thinking about what it is in that person’s action that you are thankful for.
- Writing thank you notes is a dying art, but consider picking up pen and paper and writing a heartfelt note to someone who has made a difference in your life.
- At dinnertime, take a moment to go around the table and express something you are grateful for.
- Meditation and prayer are wonderful times to focus one’s mind on the many positive things we are appreciative of in our lives.
More effective gratitude journaling
There’s something about connecting pen to paper that helps solidify information in our brains. It is therefore unsurprising that in much of the research on the health benefits of gratitude, the “tool” used to facilitate the practice was a gratitude journal. By making it a habit to write in a gratitude journal each morning or night, you too may be able to reap the wellness rewards that come with feeling appreciation for all the good things in your life.
I saw a recent post on LinkedIn about Hugh van Cuylenburg, who founded The Resilience Project after spending several months volunteering in an impoverished village in northern India. Despite the villagers’ lack of material goods and even basic utilities, van Cuylenburg was struck by their overwhelming happiness and positivity. “I learnt from this village that practicing Gratitude, Empathy, and Mindfulness [GEM] leads us to a happier, more fulfilling experience,” says van Cuylenburg.
As noted in the LinkedIn post, van Cuylenburg did a recent Prime Video special in which he focused on this “GEM” concept and the value of keeping a gratitude journal. But van Cuylenburg suggests that people sometimes run out of steam with their gratitude practice because they think too big, quickly run out of things to write about, and get bored.
Instead, van Cuylenburg proposes focusing your journal entries on not just what you’re grateful for — your friends, your family, your health, etc. — try writing about specific things that went well for you today. My cup of coffee tasted especially good this morning. I took a walk and loved how the warm sunshine felt on my face. My best friend called and we had the best laugh about a fond memory.
These things might seem a bit like the mundane happenings of an ordinary life, but if we take the time to truly ponder them, appreciate them, and even write them down in a journal, we are able to be more mindful and better reflect on the many positive things that happen to us each and every day.
Counting your blessings tied to positive aging
We’re written before about the concept of “positive aging,” and I think there is an important tie between it and practicing gratitude.
Positive aging is essentially cultivating a positive perspective about the aging process — that it’s a healthy, normal part of life and not something to fear or revile. It’s also about having a mindset that no matter what, you will continue to pursue your dreams and passions — be that a hobby, travel, time with loved ones, etc. — even if some modifications are needed.
Growing older and perhaps beginning to feel the effects of the aging process like decreased mobility or health issues, it is easy to fall into negative thought patterns about growing older. But by practicing gratitude, as described above, and instead focusing on the many positive aspects that remain in our lives, we can continue to live a life of happiness and fulfillment.
We’ve witnessed this firsthand in the many retirement communities we’ve visited over the years. The senior living residents who are grateful for the many benefits of their community and maintain a positive perspective on life are almost always the ones who seem happiest and thriving, in my experience.
We’re reminded of the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. Among the lyrics:
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
As we enter this new year, let’s all commit to counting our many blessings and adopting an attitude of gratitude!
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