Let’s all be grateful by Dr. Joseph Mercola for Mercola
While a healthy lifestyle can include many different things, perhaps one of the most overlooked is purposely adopting an attitude of gratitude. There’s an awful lot of stress and unhappiness in the world, and gratitude is an effective remedy that costs nothing.
The World Happiness Report,1 issued annually since 2012, looks at gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom of choice, social support, generosity and perception of corruption occurring in 156 countries. For 2019, the United States’ ranking dropped for the third year in a row, placing it 19th.
As reported by Vox,2 the authors of the report suggest drug addiction may play a significant role in Americans’ declining happiness. Loneliness is also becoming an increasingly common problem, with 46% of American adults reporting they sometimes or always feel lonely and 47% saying they do not have meaningful in-person social interactions on daily basis.3,4,5
Ditto for depression. According to the latest statistics,6 17.3 million American adults (7.1 percent of the adult U.S. population) and 3.2 million adolescents (13.3 percent of U.S. population aged 12 to 17) suffered at least one major depressive episode in 2017, and 16.7% of U.S. adults use psychiatric drugs.7,8 While it may be tempting to medicate away persistent feelings of unhappiness and anxiety, it’s not a long-term solution.
If your joy quotient could use a boost, commit to cultivating gratitude on a daily basis. As with other lifestyle strategies, consistency — really making it a regular part of your everyday life — is what allows true and lasting change to take place. In this case, allowing for a greater sense of happiness and contentment to arise.
What is gratitude?
As noted by Robert Emmons, one of the leading scientific experts on this topic, “Gratitude is an emotional state and an attitude toward life that is a source of human strength in enhancing one’s personal and relational well-being.”9 In his paper, he points out that gratitude has a long tradition within world religions, where it is viewed as a virtue that leads to a good life.
According to Emmons, gratitude has two key components.10 First of all, it’s an “affirmation of goodness.” In short, when you feel or express gratitude, you affirm that you live in a benevolent world.
Second, it’s a recognition that the source of benevolence comes from outside of yourself; that other people (or higher powers, if you so like) have provided you with “gifts.” In Emmons’ view, gratitude is “a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
One simple and proven11 way of cultivating gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you document the things you’re thankful for each day. As you journal, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Focus on the benevolence of other people — Doing so will increase your sense of being supported by life and decrease unnecessary anxiety
- Focus on what you have received rather than what’s been withheld
- Avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages, more things or “better luck,” as doing so will erode your sense of security. If you’re going to slip into comparisons, contemplate what your life would be like if you didn’t have something you currently enjoy
How gratitude benefits your psychological health
From a psychological perspective, the practice of gratitude has been shown to:
•Increase happiness and life satisfaction12
•Increase your perceived level of social support14
•Improve emotional resiliency15 — As noted in one study,16 “positive emotions contribute to psychological and physical well-being via more effective coping,” and that “positive emotions play a crucial role in enhancing coping resources in the face of negative events.” By improving resiliency, gratitude helps you “bounce back” faster when something negative happens
•Reduce symptoms of depression17,18 — According to one study,19 “Correlation analysis showed that gratitude, depression, peace of mind and rumination were interrelated … Results … suggested that gratitude may … counteract the symptoms of depression by enhancing a state of peace of mind and reducing ruminative thinking.”
This benefit also has biological underpinnings, as researchers have confirmed that gratitude triggers the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.20
It also stimulates your hypothalamus (a brain area involved in the regulation of stress) and your ventral tegmental area (part of your brain’s reward circuitry that produces pleasurable feelings).21In short, it actually helps alter your brain in beneficial ways
Gratitude benefits physical health and work too
The beneficial effects of gratitude as a state of mind are not limited to your psychology, however. According to Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,22 an expert in brain and mind health, gratitude has “a health maintenance indication for every major organ system” in your body.23 Indeed, research has found gratitude:
- Reduces pain24 and lowers inflammation25,26
- Improves your heart rate variability, which can help lower blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease27
- Lowers risk for heart disease — According to one study, “Efforts to increase gratitude may be a treatment for improving well-being in heart failure patients’ lives and may be of potential clinical value”28,29
- Improves general health by encouraging self-care30,31
- Improves sleep32,33,34 (which in and of itself can have wide ranging health benefits, lowering your risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and much more)
Studies have also shown gratitude can have a beneficial impact on other areas of your life as well — boosting productivity,35 reducing materialism and increasing generosity,36 for example. All of which can improve your general “happiness score.”
Excessive materialism blocks gratitude
Gratitude is actually a form of generosity, because it involves offering or extending “something” to another person, even if it’s only a verbal affirmation of thanks. It’s not so surprising then that materialism has been identified as one of the most significant blocks to gratitude. As noted in a newsletter by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), which maintains a project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude:37