Gratitude Is Good For Your Mind AND Body

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

I will be the first to admit that life is hard, and there is no use glossing over this fact. There are times that I am so overwhelmed by parenting, working, housework, finances, relationships, and the increasingly horrible state of the world that declaring how #blessed I am sounds like the biggest lie in the universe.

And yet, when I take even a second to think about it, I immediately realize just how very lucky I truly am. The mere fact that I have two living children, a roof over my head, and food on the table is plenty — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If we dig around a little, all of us have something to be grateful for, and most of us are actually surrounded by more goodness than we even realize.

It turns out that taking some time each day to concentrate on the good is really important for us, both mentally and physically. And it’s not just theoretical, either: There’s actual science to back up the idea that a habit of gratitude can contribute to our overall mental and physical health.

In one study from 2008, for example, scientists looked at MRIs of people’s brains after they spent some time practicing gratitude. As Mic explains it, the scientists found that gratitude lit up “parts of the brain’s reward pathway and the hypothalamus, which controls the release of hormones that regulate bodily processes.”

Basically, the scientists found that gratitude triggered the parts of the brain that brought on a ton of warm, fuzzy feelings, including ones that aid in better sleep, mood regulation, metabolism — and even orgasms. (I mean, who isn’t grateful for orgasms?)

But there’s more. Dr. Robert Emmons is a “gratitude expert” from UC Davis. His research (compiled here), has shown that people who keep gratitude journals tended to exercise more regularly, report fewer physical ailments, and generally have a more positive take on life. He also conducted research on adults with neuromuscular disease and found that practicing gratitude for 21 days brought these adults a more positive outlook, deeper connections with others, and even better quality sleep. Pretty cool, huh?

But all of this isn’t just confined to adults. Kids benefit greatly from practicing gratitude as well. In his research, Dr. Emmons found that young adults who practiced daily gratitude exhibited higher alert levels, as well as more determination, attention, and energy than their peers who did not participate in this practice. He also found that, overall, kids who practice gratitude tended to have a more positive attitude toward their families and in school.

Who knew that practicing gratitude could be that powerful and have such a profound impact on ourselves, our kids, and even our communities?

If you’re asking how to bring the practice of gratitude into your life, it’s actually pretty simple. Probably the most popular and well-studied method of making gratitude a practice is to start a gratitude journal. Writing out your thoughts is a fabulous way to explore them and highlight their meaning. Keeping a gratitude journal doesn’t have to be fancy or time-consuming. You can just write out one or two things each day that you are grateful for. You can use a notebook, a pad of paper, or even the Notes app on your phone.

There is also mindfulness mediation. Sitting still with your eyes closed for as little as five minutes a day can have a significant effect on your life. Doing so with the intent to think about what you are grateful for can help guide your meditations and actually be helpful if you feel like you have no idea what to do while you are mediating (don’t worry: many of us find meditation difficult).

If you are religious in any way, adding gratitude lists to your daily prayers is a wonderful idea and is probably something you are already doing to some extent.

But if all of that sounds just totally impossible (the idea of adding one more thing to my life sounds ridonculous, so I totally get that!), there are other, even easier things you can do to bring some gratitude practice into your life.

Just take a minute to stop at some point in your day. Shift your focus onto the good that is in your life right that very moment.

Give your kids a hug.

Tell someone you love or appreciate them.

Feel gratitude as you drink a glass of water.

Listen to the birds chirping outside.

Remember how lucky every one of us is to be alive.

Whatever other crap might be happening in your life, there is always, always something somewhere to be grateful for, and living with the simple intention to notice those things, can do you — and everyone around you — a world of good.

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