Gratitude and happiness often go hand in hand, especially when gratefulness is seen as something essential in our daily lives and not just as a passing emotion. Indeed, science shows that far from being a monolithic concept, gratefulness is a complex emotion with real advantages. Indeed, if you start practicing gratitude then you can expect real physical, social and cognitive benefits.
So, what is gratitude and gratefulness exactly? Essentially, gratitude is the affirmation of goodness in our lives and the world, of the gifts and benefits we receive, and the recognition that the source of this goodness is outside of us.
Taking time to be grateful has many advantages that can make a real difference to our daily lives. As well as allowing us to be mindful and celebrate the present, here are five key reasons to pick up a gratitude practice – the benefits of doing so are all backed up by science.
The social dimension of gratitude is one of the most important benefits of setting up and/or persevering with a gratitude practice. It can help us build stronger relationships because by practising it, we're acknowledging not only the existence of things to be grateful for in life but also – and more importantly – we're acknowledging the source of those things.
In the majority of cases, the origins can be traced back to other people, whether they're family members (such as your partner preparing your favourite meal), or strangers (the postman delivering your mail, farmers producing the foods that will be on your table, etc.).
Be grateful for simple things, such as your partner's cooking
When we think about how other people improve and bring pleasure to our lives, our appreciation for them increases naturally. Noticing the small things and how they came about can be a real eye-opener. It helps us feel more interconnected – part of the whole – and in unity with the world that surrounds the people in it and us. The result? We're less likely to feel lonely or isolated and more likely to live a meaningful life.
“Scientific findings have proven that gratefulness is a complex emotion with real advantages. Indeed, if you start practising gratitude then you can expect real physical, social, and cognitive benefits.”
The link between gratitude practice and stronger or more fulfilling relationships is not just subjective: researchers at the University of Manchester have established that gratitude influences our perception of social support, encourages reciprocity, and helps create a more supportive environment.
Practicing gratitude also has the potential benefit of turning us into better functioning individuals, and science leaves little room for doubt about this.
Dr Christina M. Karns from the University of Oregon carried out extensive research into the neurological aspects of gratitude. Her findings (which you can learn about here, especially in the second half of video) revealed that brain imaging scans show how practicing gratitude activates two areas of the brain that are responsible for processing information for decision-making purposes.
This has been confirmed by studies at other universities, which showed that grateful individuals were more likely to be patient in receiving rewards and made better decisions in the long term, whereas individuals who were not feeling grateful when faced with a choice preferred immediate rewards even if those were not as beneficial.
“The social dimension of gratitude is one of the most important benefits of setting up and/or persevering with a gratitude practice.”
Researchers concluded that there's a connection between gratefulness and self-control. Combined, these two virtues can help us become more rational and focused when making decisions. Even better, research at two universities in the USA shows that feeling grateful releases dopamine, a 'happiness hormone' that keeps neurons functioning and, according to Science Daily, can increase motivation and energy levels.
Practices like letter writing or keeping a gratitude journal were also shown to help people achieve their goals more consistently, and this only makes sense. Consciously and intentionally setting aside some time to reflect on the reasons we have to feel grateful sets a precedent for analytical thinking, which can then be extended to other aspects of our lives: the benefit of gratitude practice are clear.
When being grateful becomes an integral part of who we are, savouring the little pleasures in life becomes an essential part of our day-to-day routine. And the more grateful we feel, the more enjoyment we can get out of life.
This is more than just a hypothesis. A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that gratitude is strongly related to other positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of control, and hope. At the same time, the study found an unlikely correlation between the feeling of gratefulness and negative emotions, such as depression, envy, and anxiety.
One benefit of writing a gratitude journal is hitting your goals
From a scientific point of view, our brains have a built-in negativity bias that makes us more likely to remember bad experiences than good ones. This happens because negative events trigger an adrenaline rush that engraves negative feelings and memories in the brain. But another benefit of gratitude practice is that it can help re-wire our brains to overcome this bias.
Indeed, research shows that gratitude boosts our resilience and gives us reasons to be happy, even in difficult times, establishing a link between gratefulness and the ability to cope better with problems and stress.
Other studies have shown that people suffering from depression reported a 35 per cent reduction in their symptoms after starting a thoughtful gratitude practice. Additionally, it's interesting to note that gratefulness seems to have a cumulative effect, as participants reported that happiness levels kept increasing over time. So if you practice gratefulness continuously, the benefits could grow, too.
When all the benefits of gratitude practice discussed so far are taken into consideration, it's evident that being grateful is an excellent way of boosting our opportunities for self-growth and personal development.
In fact, bringing gratefulness into our lives can transform our personalities for the better. Scientific studies conducted in 2010 suggested that this emotion serves as an intermediary between positive personality traits and emotional well-being, especially when it comes to areas like self-acceptance, purpose in life, openness to others, and autonomy.
The beauty of this is that there's no way of predicting where a gratitude practice will take you, as adopting gratefulness is like going on a journey of personal discovery.
Grateful living has advantages that we can experience at a physical level, too. Dr Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, is a well-known expert in the science of gratefulness, who affirms that gratitude practice can be beneficial to our bodies and improve our overall well-being.
Practice makes perfect: gratitude for exercise keeps you motivated
Research carried out by Dr Emmons and his team highlighted the mind-body connection and showed that grateful individuals tend to be more aware of how their lifestyle choices affect their health. For example, being thankful for how good exercise makes us feel is likely to keep us motivated to work out frequently, and in turn, regular activity is linked to a stronger immune system, lower cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure.
“It's interesting to note that gratefulness seems to have a cumulative effect, as participants reported that happiness levels kept increasing over time. ”
On that note, practising gratefulness appears to be good for our hearts too, quite literally so. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, examined people who were at high risk of experiencing heart disease and who also kept a gratefulness journal and found that their symptoms worsened at a slower rate than participants who didn't follow the same practice.
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And in case that wasn't good enough, feelings of gratefulness cause higher activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates sleep patterns, metabolism, and stress levels.
As you can see, the benefits of incorporating gratefulness practices into your daily life are enormous. Why not give it a try and experience first hand the transformative power of gratitude? One of the best things about being grateful is that it's simple and doesn't cost a thing! ●
Do you have a gratitude practice? How has it changed your life? Share with the happiness.com community below or in the Forum...
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A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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