Science Shows That Saying Thanks Can Improve Your Health and Happiness

by Sarah Winfrey on 24 September 2013 0 comments

You might have recently heard something about practicing gratefulness — it's been making the rounds as some sort of panacea, a cure for whatever ails you. Personally, I was skeptical about some of these claims. But as I read more about the benefits of gratitude, I decided to give it a fair shot. After all, if it can truly cause half of the positive changes that people claim it can, it's worth a few minutes a day of feeling a little silly to reap the rewards. (See also: 100 Ways to Change Your Life)

Color me surprised to find that some of the claims about gratitude are backed up by good science. Below are the three most compelling reasons that I found to start a gratitude practice.

1. Practicing Gratitude Makes You Happier

We tend to assume that we will be happy when we reach some particular milestone. We think that making more money, buying a home, having a baby, or meeting a special someone will make us happy.

When we think along these lines, we assume that the state of our external world is what does or does not make us happy. However, research shows that 90% of happiness is actually determined by the way the brain processes the world.

Thus, changing the way we see the world can change our reality and even make us happier. Professor, author, and happiness researcher Shawn Achor works with people in many different contexts to determine what constitutes happiness and how to cultivate that. He's discovered that simply listing three new things to be grateful each day for 21 days can change the way the brain works.

Creating a gratitude list begins to reprogram the human brain for positivity. This releases brain chemicals like dopamine, which allow the brain to perform better. This improvement happens across the board, causing people to be more creative, better at problem solving, etc.

As it turns out, a positive, well-performing brain is a happy brain, and a happy brain makes for a happy life. Achor discusses his research in more depth in his TED talk, which is well worth a listen.

2. Gratitude Gives Us Purpose

Do you ever wonder where you're going in life, or why you were put on this earth, anyway? Practicing gratitude can help you find answers to those questions.

It may seem a bit naive to say that simply giving thanks for the good things in your life will help you find your life's purpose. However, practicing gratitude highlights the good things in our lives. It makes us stop and take a look at them, and spend at least a little time dwelling on the things we already have that make us happy.

There's not too much distance between happiness and purpose. Often, gratitude serves not so much to help us discover a new purpose, but rather to see the purpose our lives already contain. When we are thankful for our family members, we can develop a renewed sense of purpose in caring for them, helping them, and cultivating those relationships on a deeper level. When we are thankful for our work, we can remember why we chose that work in the first place, what drove us there, etc.

I've found this to be true in my own life. I spend most of most days taking care of my three small children and, while I love them dearly, they often get on my nerves, too. As I've begun practicing gratitude, though, I've discovered that giving thanks for my children and the various things that they do changes how I handle my annoyance. Instead of just being annoyed, I'm better able to see my responses to them in light of my overall purposes as a parent and, thus, I am able to respond to them in a gentler, more focused way. (See also: 20 Free Ways to Relieve Stress)

3. Gratitude Is Good for Our Bodies

If happiness and a renewed sense of purpose are not enough, cultivating gratitude is also good for our bodies. It helps us sleep better, improves anxiety and depression, improves immune functioning, lessens symptoms of illness, lowers blood pressure, and more. (See also: 44 Ways to Improve Health and Happiness)

Some people think it sounds crazy that something as simple as including gratitude practice in our daily lives can improve our health, but the research all shows that it can. It makes a bit more sense if you think about it in terms of happiness.

We've already talked about how being grateful can make the brain function better and, thus, make you happier. A happy, well-functioning brain is going to do a better job of managing the rest of the body and working more efficiently and easily, which means that your whole physical being will be stronger.

I know that, as I grow older, I'm more conscious of my health and of wanting to maintain that for as long as I can. If health is of particular concern to you, or you want to do what you can to avoid physical issues in the future, then this may be reason enough for you to start a gratitude practice today.

How to Practice Gratefulness Daily

There are so many ways to practice gratitude. Many people do what Achor suggests and list at least three new things that they're grateful for every day. Some have dedicated notebooks for the task. Others use a new piece of paper every day and simply stack them together. Some just list each item in a few words or a sentence, while others journal about them, writing a paragraph or even a page for each one.

Still other people find that their gratitude practice looks different. Some photograph the things they're grateful for, while others draw them. Some say their lists out loud, because hearing their own voice helps cement the feeling of gratitude. Others try to legitimately compliment the people around them every day, so that they can share their gratefulness. (See also: 21 Ways to Say Thanks)

To ensure daily practice, set aside some time each day for giving thanks. Keep your notebook or other materials someplace where you'll see them, so you remember your practice. And stick with it — even if you feel silly or you have a particularly bad day, give gratefulness a chance.

Do you practice gratefulness? How have you seen it change your life?

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