Most of the world’s greatest religions and philosophies teach the value of gratitude.
“Always find something to be thankful for, even in the hard times,” the Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. The Buddha once said, “A person of integrity is grateful & thankful,” and taught that gratitude should be practiced in all situations, even those we find unfavorable.
Lao Tzu, the founding sage of Taoism, once said, “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Sure, we may be in the habit of saying “thank you” when someone does something kind for us, but do we feel this gratitude deep in our hearts? Do we really feel grateful for our lives, possessions, and relationships? Or does gratitude only strike when we compare ourselves to those who are struggling?
According to science, having a deep feeling of gratitude in our hearts and keeping it top-of-mind, helps us live happier and healthier lives.
Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami released a study in 2015 that showed just how powerful a daily gratitude practice can be.
They asked three groups of participants to keep a daily journal. One group was assigned to write down events that happened during the week that made them feel grateful. Another wrote down daily irritations that upset them. The final group was asked to write down notable events, without labeling them positive or negative.
The group that focused on gratitude reported to be more optimistic and felt greater positivity about their lives than the other two groups. They also reported fewer trips to the doctor and were more physically active.
Practicing daily gratitude also helps us physically.
Scientists from University of California San Diego studied 186 asymptomatic Stage B heart failure patients who didn’t have advanced symptoms such as trouble breathing or fatigue.
“We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they journaled. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” study author Paul J Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at UCSD, said in a statement.
“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health,” he continued.
According to a 2008 study published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, there is a biological basis for the benefits of feeling grateful.
Gratitude activates the hypothalamus which is located at the base of the brain and regulates hormones responsible for emotional responses, sleep, appetite, and body temperature. Gratitude has also been found to stimulate the release of dopamine, a hormone associated with pleasure.
So how do you develop an attitude of gratitude?
- Like the people in the studies above, keep a daily journal documenting the things you are grateful for. These can be inspired by events of the day or the people, places, and things you have in your life in general.
- When you say “thank you” to someone, make sure it’s not just words. Focus on the feelings behind the sentiment.
- When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, give yourself a compliment.
- Realize that nothing in your life is too small to be thankful for. A sunny day, a smile from a stranger or a simple glass of water should all inspire thoughts and feelings of gratitude.
- Be grateful for your challenges as well. The misfortunes in our lives make us stronger and help us appreciate the fortune we do have.
Being grateful means appreciating all the blessings and challenges in our lives. Once we realize we have all we need, we can begin to focus on the things that truly matter in life.
Gratitude also helps us to stop focusing on what we don’t have and, instead of on what we can share with others. Because as Lao Tzu said, “When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Photo credit: Unsplash/Tatiana Rodriguez, Pixabay.