Updated: Aug 17, 2020
There are three meaningful health elements in helping to keep our bodies in good condition:
(Note: for all future references to the word "spiritual", it is not meant to be construed as religious. For this post, spiritual means anything in which you find power and/or peace.)
I wrote my first post about an example of an emotional/mental feeling -- Joy, and different ways we can find it. Now I would like to write about an example of a spiritual element -- gratitude.
Gratitude is: "the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness" (Oxford Dictionary).
It is recognizing a positive thing in the present moment. It is acknowledging that good things happen often. It is remembering that we have control over what we choose to recognize and appreciate. It is known to people in different ways, such as counting blessings, being thankful, feeling lucky, the Universe looking out for us. However we choose to recognize it, practicing gratitude can become an important element in our experiences.
What else is gratitude? It is more than just saying, “thank you”. Gratitude is an awareness of something positive that is necessary or needed to improve life.
"Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier...although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice" (Harvard Health Publishing).
It takes a manner of mindfulness to really become aware of what is good in our lives. Gratitude is a feeling of peace.
Who can practice gratitude? Everyone! There is evidence in multiple studies that show people can deliberately cultivate gratitude (Psychology Today). People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways; they can apply it to:
- the past, by retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of past events
- the present, by not taking good fortune for granted as it comes
- the future, by maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude
Gratitude is both a temporary feeling and a built-in character trait. In both cases, gratitude involves a process of first recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome, and then realizing that there is an external source for that good outcome.
What can happen when a person incorporates gratitude into their everyday life? From personal experience, a practice of gratitude can lead to a feeling of joy. Aha--see what I did there? We've circled back to blog #1. :-)
Gratitude and contentment never lose. Positive psychology (the study and science of positive aspects of human life) conducted research, and found that gratitude is consistently associated with greater feelings of happiness. It keeps depression and anxiety and stress at bay. Gratitude facilitates helping behavior -- when we help someone out of gratitude, we feel rewarded and want to share that with others, therefore promoting positive energy that continues to be spread.
Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, better enjoy good experiences, improve health, deal with adversity, and build stronger relationships (Harvard Health Publishing).
"When we take time to notice the things that go right, it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day."
--Martin Seligman, Psychologist
Speaking from experimentation and research, levels of overall happiness can improve over time. "Brain scans of people assigned a task that stimulates expression of gratitude show lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude" (Psychology Today).
When I was in college, I wrote a paper on the research studies conducted over the years on how practicing gratitude and mindfulness can affect a person's overall mood and health. A popular study was done by Martin Seligman - a big name in the psychology world. He and his colleagues wanted to see if an individual could feel happier, or more positive, on a long term scale. They found that a few of their experiments lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. It was a pretty interesting study, and if you want to read more about it, click here.
So how can we practice gratitude? I don't think there is any right or wrong way to do this. It can become an individual practice. Some examples can include prayer, meditation, finding your "happy place". But a more honest way to find your own practice of gratitude is to try different methods. Pay attention to what you find gratitude in and how you got there, and keep doing that! Find what works for you so it becomes a comfortable practice, and doesn't feel "forced". I'll share some other ways to get this practice started towards the end of this post.
What are times when we usually practice gratitude? Probably during the obvious times: Thanksgiving (that's a biggie for most), maybe when we receive a gift from someone, or perhaps when we come out on the surviving end of some kind of critical event.
But when should we practice gratitude? Ideally, every single day. Expressing gratitude helps us even if we don’t explicitly share it with someone. We can be happier and more satisfied with life simply because we completed the act of showing gratefulness. A gratitude practice trains the brain to be more in tune with experiencing gratitude — a positive plus a positive, equals more positives (Psychology Today).
How does gratitude affect our physical selves? In lots of ways. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide” (UC Davis Health). Studies have also shown that grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and use medications less often.
Practicing gratitude has been linked with better heart function and a state of harmony in the nervous system that is equated with less stress and more mental clarity. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind and healthy soul. My question to you is, why would you not want to practice gratitude and mindfulness?
What is the opposite of gratitude? The opposite of gratitude is negative thinking. Dwelling on negatives and skewed perceptions of hardships kills gratitude. Envy and cynicism and narcissism are more ways of dimming the spotlight of a grateful outlook (Psychology Today).
Fear is the enemy of our spiritual selves. Gratitude disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating that often accompanies them. To keep up a healthy spiritual self means acknowledging the positive circumstances that are given to us.
“Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.” --David Hume, Philosopher
So, to sum up this post on this huge topic, gratitude allows us to:
- celebrate the present
- block toxic emotions (envy, resentment, regret, depression)
- be more resilient to stress, depression, anxiety, etc
- strengthen social ties and self-worth
And for those of you who want to practice this further, here are some (assignments) that can start or continue you on your journey of gratitude:
Create a “count your blessings” exercise -- at the end of each day, write down three things for which you were grateful. The positive effects of gratitude writing compound like interest. You might not notice the benefit of a daily or weekly practice, but after several weeks and months, you will. I promise! It just takes time.
Create visual and verbal reminders to practice gratitude -- sticky notes on your bathroom mirror, phone notifications (i.e., "The Gratitude App"), and sharing out loud with your loved ones are great starters.
Mental Gratitude Notes -- if you are not given the chance to write a thank you or thank someone in person, do it in your head. The energy and effort is still there in a strong way.
Have a "gratitude buddy" -- text or email a friend or family member everyday about something new that you are grateful for. Find things in your own self that you are grateful for, and never take those things for granted.
I have personally tried these suggestions, and I love them all! I have also had to learn and re-learn how to practice gratitude, after different life adventures.
Negative emotions are strong and can trick you into believing you are a victim. But positive emotions overcome the negative, and leave YOU feeling like the strong one, like you can conquer any event that happens.
Gratitude is not always an easy practice, but it is one that is worth it.
Harvard Health Publishing (2020). "Giving thanks can make you happier". https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
Oxford Dictionary (2020). https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/gratitude
Psychology Today (2020). "Gratitude". https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gratitude
Seligman, Steen, Peterson (2005). "Positive psychology progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions". https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Seligman-PosPsychProgress.pdf
UC Davis Health (2015). "Gratitude is good medicine". https://health.ucdavis.edu/medicalcenter/features/2015-2016/11/20151125_gratitude.html