How Gratitude Improves Your Health and Well-Being
The Thanksgiving season is a time where people start to reflect on the things they are grateful for in their lives. This is an excellent practice, but most people only highlight their gratitude on Thanksgiving, then neglect to do so for the rest of the year. This year, we’d like to encourage you to practice gratitude all year-round.
This is an excellent practice that can keep you grounded and uplifted, particularly during difficult times. Regularly practicing gratitude can have lasting effects on your health and well-being. In fact, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t.
1. Gratitude Expels Toxic Emotions
Studies show that feelings of gratitude activate the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites of the brain that regulates emotions, memory, and bodily functions.
In a recent research study, 300 adults seeking mental health counseling were split into three groups. All groups would receive counseling. The first group was asked to write letters of gratitude every week, the second group was asked to write down their thoughts on negative experiences, and the third only received counseling.
Not surprisingly, people in the positive letter-writing group used more positive-emotion words and “we” words than the other group. This suggests that the writing of gratitude letters shifts one’s attention away from toxic emotions to focus on positive thoughts. This helps encourage better mental health. When you keep writing about how grateful you are for other people in your life, it gets harder to wallow in your negative experiences.
2. Gratitude Reduces Stress and Pain
Another study worth mentioning evaluated the effect of gratitude on daily physical well-being. 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported feeling reduced pain symptoms. They were more willing to work out and exhibited heightened well-being. This indicates that gratitude regulates the dopamine levels in our brains, filling us with more vitality and reducing our subjective feelings of pain.
The regions of the brain associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to areas of the brain associated with stress relief and pain reduction. Feeling grateful puts your body in a more relaxed state and allows the benefits of lowered stress to wash over.
Many significant studies over the years have found that participants who felt gratitude showed reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. These studies establish that by practicing gratefulness, we can become more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences. Gratitude helps us handle our stress better. By appreciating the little things in life, we can rewire our brains to handle present circumstances with better awareness and broader perception.
3. Gratitude Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Gratitude also significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing the stress hormones. Feelings of gratitude cause an increase in the part of the brain that is responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence. As a result, people who keep a gratitude journal or regularly express their gratitude in other ways are found to be more empathetic and positive-minded.
In a study at Indiana University, researchers found evidence that practicing gratitude can alter brain function in depressed individuals. This shows that even something as small as being thankful can induce structural changes to rewire the brain to more positive thinking.
4. Gratitude Improves Sleep Quality
Receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness has been found to activate the hypothalamus, which controls all bodily mechanisms including sleep. When our hypothalamic regulation gets triggered by gratitude, it helps us get deeper and healthier natural sleep every day. A person whose mind that is filled with gratitude is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day.
5. Gratitude Has Lasting Effects That Can Improve Your Health Over Time
Since gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, having grateful feelings may lead to increased health benefits over time. As mentioned, grateful people experience less pain and report feeling healthier than other people. They also tend to exercise more often. In addition, gratitude improves mental health by reducing toxic emotions, from envy and resentment, to frustration and regret. It’s no surprise that being grateful increases happiness and reduces depression.
In the study with those who wrote gratitude letters, the participants were re-evaluated after 3 months. Comparing the participants who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the letter writers still showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex under the scanner when they experienced gratitude. This discovery suggests that expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, these results indicate that the practicing gratitude could help train the mind to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude into the future, contributing to improved mental health and overall well-being over time.