What’s so Great About Cultivating Gratitude?

One of the first things we suggest patients start is an actual pen-to-paper gratitude journal.  Patients often look at Dr. Arata like, “What?  A gratitude journal?!  What the heck is that going to do for my health problems?”  Science says a lot, actually.

For more than a decade, studies have been going on looking at the effects of cultivating gratitude on physical health, on psychological well-being, and on our relationships with others.  In these studies, researchers simply had people keep a “gratitude journal” where they record the things they’re grateful for.  There over 1,000 participants that ranged from ages 8-80 who kept the journals for only 3 weeks and the results were fantastic.  They key was consistency and the following benefits were reported:

• Stronger immune systems
• Less bothersome aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• More frequent exercise and appreciation for health
• Longer, deeper, more restorative sleep

• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness

• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing
• Les loneliness and isolation

The social benefits are especially exciting because relationships play such a crucial role in our lives in regards to happiness and stress.  If you are going to a job every day in a hostile environment or you are in a difficult marriage, the stress of those strained and unhealthy relationships are going to spill over and affect all aspects of well-being.  If we cultivate more gratitude within ourselves, it is felt by those around us and they respond.

Why does cultivating gratitude work?

There are many, many reasons researchers think it works, but here are the big ones:

1. Cultivating Gratitude trains us to savor the present.

It magnifies positive emotions.

Research on emotion shows that humans are wired to focus on the negative.  It was a survival mechanism to be hyper-vigilant and to learn valuable lessons from bad things.  It has been said that our emotional minds act like Teflon with the good and Velcro with the bad that happens to us.

You can really see evidence of this when you get that new car/job/house/gadget and the excitement fades, or when your spouse (or boss) gives you compliments that never seem to be remembered like  the criticisms.

Gratitude makes us appreciate the things/people/circumstances we have, and when we appreciate something, we enjoy it more and are less likely to take it for granted.  When we notice the positives of life more, it magnifies the good and engages us more fully in our lives.  Instead of becoming bored with the goodness, we are savoring it.

2. Cultivating Gratitude banishes negative, destructive emotions.

Envy, resentment, regret—these emotions can destroy our happiness faster than just about anything. There’s even recent evidence, including a 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality, showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.

Envy and gratitude cannot be exist at the same time, so this makes a lot of sense. They’re feelings that just don’t go together. If you’re grateful for what you have in your own life, you can’t resent someone for having something “better” in theirs.  Research has suggested that people who have high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy.  Who wouldn’t want to unload those feelings?  Especially when there is much research to suggest that these feelings are actually bad for our physical health.

3. Grateful people manage stress better.
We can never get rid of stress, so you have permission to stop stressing over the fact that you have stress in your life (You’re welcome).  A number of studies have shown that for people who are more grateful and suffer a serious trauma or adversity recover more quickly.  Being more grateful promotes a solid foundation of peace and well-being so it can handle the impacts of life better than a thin and brittle foundation of anger, resentment and dissatisfaction.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a doctor say my physical woes are caused by stress, I’d have a LOT of them!!  When we lower our stress and find ways to recover more quickly, our physical health is strengthened.
4. Cultivating Gratitude boosts self-esteem.
None of us got to where we are all by ourselves. Both the good and the bad encounters we’ve had with others, be it your family, teachers, co-workers, a spouse, your friends and children.  When the focus is more on the contributions of others that you are grateful for, you can recognize that they saw value in you and you can accept that you are valuable also.  Getting caught up in focusing on all the wrongs that have been done, this creates victimhood and low self-esteem.
Having a higher self-esteem is good for our physical health as well, because we accept that we are worth the effort it takes to take care of ourselves better.   Getting exercise, connecting with other people, practicing self-care, investing in yourself all require some good self-esteem.


Becoming a Grateful Person

How do we get from “Let’s all take turns saying what we are grateful for”, once a year at Thanksgiving to being a truly grateful person?

The first thing we suggest to patients (and happens to be what is most commonly used in studies on gratitude) is simply keeping a gratitude journal.  We aren’t talking eloquent prose here that take up hours of your day and will eventually be passed on to generations of your family.  Just a few bullet points at the end or beginning of your day, whichever resonates better with you.  I like to include small victories also like:

  • I’m grateful for the loving comment my husband made.
  • I’m grateful for the willpower in not buying those chips.
  • I’m grateful for the few moments of connection with my teenager today.

This practice really works.  I have seen it work on myself, my family members, and our patients.  It is so interesting how such a simple act can cut out ungrateful thoughts, make you fell literally lighter in the chest.  I have seen my clients come alive before my very eyes as the weeks of working with them progress.  It also guards against taking things for granted and we see our lives as more exciting and rewarding.  When we are not grateful, we really do miss out on so much of life.

One fun thing I did in my house to get the kids thinking about being grateful was to get a big glass container with a latching lid and hung a little chalkboard sign on it saying “Gratitude Jar”.  We tried just writing one little note per evening and then reading them aloud on the weekend.  I also thought it would be good to have them write one thing about each other that they were grateful for and read them aloud later, or have them read some when they were feeling down.

You can get really creative with ways to cultivate gratitude in your life, but here are a few ways to start.  Once you get rolling, we’d love to hear about some of the things you’ve tried!

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