What I’ve Learned About Thankfulness: It Makes You Happier and Healthier

by Enoon Gnihton

You woke up this morning to a new day. Be thankful, because some people did not get to see this day. You were able to get out of bed and stand up. Be thankful…many people could not. You probably have a roof over your head and food to eat. Be thankful…many people do not.

"For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, for love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends".

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is easy to take the benefits of our lives for granted. In fact many of us take most of life’s blessings for granted until something happens that diminishes or eliminates them. We tend not to miss our water until the well runs dry. In a culture of "more" we are encouraged to continually grasp for something new in the hope that it will make us happier, and focus on what we lack rather than what we have. An essential ingredient for improving our happiness and health is to "want what we have" rather than continually striving to "have what we want".

A Thankful State of Mind

True thankfulness entails more than a polite act such as saying "thank you" for an act of generosity or kindness. External link opens in new tab or windowRobert Emmons, a pioneer in the field of gratefulness, defines it as "a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life". Thankfulness is distinctly different from indebtedness or being obligated to others for favors or kindness received. Indebtedness invokes higher levels of anger and lower levels of appreciation, happiness, and love relative to a focus on being grateful to others. Being thankful requires us to give up a "victim mentality" and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness. Life owes us nothing. Neither are we victims of life’s many twists and turns. Real thankfulness is a state of mind.

"Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitudeExternal link opens in new tab or window."   Maya Angelou

The Science of Gratitude

People who practice gratitude and thankfulness consistently report a host of benefits including: improved immune systems, more joy and happiness in their lives, stronger relationships and more generous behavior. Studies conducted by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley affirm these benefits in their groundbreaking project External link opens in new tab or window"Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude (ESPG)". One of the main goals of ESPG is to "Expand the scientific database of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of human health, personal and relational well-being, and developmental science".

A testament to the benefits of thankfulness comes from a research study conducted by Dr. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. The study directed three groups of people to write about things that had happened to them during the week. They told one group to write about things for which they were grateful. The second group wrote about things that irritated or displeased them. The third group wrote about things that affected them, without any emphasis on positive or negative feelings about the events. 10 weeks later the group who focused on gratitude was more optimistic and felt better about their lives. In addition, this group exercised more, and had fewer doctor visits than those who focused on irritations.

Cultivating Happiness and Health through Thankfulness

We all have had bad days when it feels as though the world is working against us and frustrating our every move. But good things happen on bad days if we are diligent in taking notice of them. The results of a 2005 study led by External link opens in new tab or windowMartin Seligman suggests that spending 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day writing about three things that went well that day can lead to increased happiness that could last for 10 months. External link opens in new tab or windowStudies by Paul Mills, Laura Redwine, and colleagues explored the relationship between gratitude and health in people with Stage B, asymptomatic heart failure whose hearts had suffered structural damage without having any outward symptoms. They found that grateful people reported better sleep, less fatigue, less depression, and more confidence in their ability to care for themselves. Patients who kept daily gratitude journals also showed less markers of inflammation at the end of the study.

Gratitude Journals

Gratitude journals are a way to proactively acknowledge the good in our lives. Writing down our thoughts about the things that have gone well for us provides a perspective that diminishes negativity and inspires confidence and a sense of well-being. It helps us to value, appreciate, and better enjoy the positive aspects of living. Keeping a daily journal might seem to be a bit daunting at first, but the benefits to our happiness and health are more than worth the effort.

The Greater Good Science Center’s "External link opens in new tab or windowThnx4 Gratitude Journal" project encourages participants to engage in a mobile-friendly online gratitude journal for a 10 or 21-day challenge. Participants who kept the journal for two weeks reported improved health including "fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, and reduced congestion".

The ultimate thankfulness goal is to attain a state of mind where thankfulness and gratitude become second nature and a natural part of daily living. If writing down your thanks daily seems too burdensome another solution is to make it a habit to end your day with a simple acknowledgement of three things that went well for you that day. This allows you to finish your day with a positive feeling that lowers your stress and prepares you for a restful and peaceful sleep. Additionally, if you find it difficult to remember your gratitude, add a repetitive reminder to your smart phone. Just stopping for a moment to be thankful can change your outlook for the entire day.

Some of the most powerful thankfulness thoughts are those for the simple things that we take for granted. No matter how difficult our lives can be at any given moment, there is always something for which we can be thankful. I have learned that practicing thankfulness and gratitude can help to make you happier and healthier.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow".  Melody Beattie

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