For the first time in years, I am waking up feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to face the day. Gone are the worries of hitting a deadline, or preparing for a meeting, or whether or not an event will be successful. I am grateful for that. Grateful for the peace of mind.
Practicing gratitude is not something I have ever done with intention. It has always been a thought or afterthought that quickly passes through my mind—other than the good ole days when the family would share what they were thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner. Man, my kids were not grateful for that!
In the last few years, practising gratitude has become quite trendy and the market is saturated with books, how-to’s, videos, etc. on how to properly express gratitude. And with good reason. Mindfully expressing gratitude has been shown to improve mental health and improve relationships. Of course, it does! This only makes sense. Why? Broadly defined, gratitude is the acknowledgement of what is valuable and meaningful. It is a state of thankfulness and appreciation. Gratitude creates feelings of contentment, fulfillment, and peace. It clears out feelings of resentment, discontent, and negativity. Gratitude is a big comfy sweater on a chilly fall day. No wonder it has become a trend!
But is practicing gratitude just a placebo? A natural and inexpensive way to feel good about your life? Or, is there something behind all the hype?
Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is an expert on the science of gratitude. He claims, “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.”
There is some pretty strong science that supports the fact that our mental health and physical health go hand in hand. (The University of California, Berkeley, even established a Greater Good Science Centre. Founded in 2001, the role of this centre is to provide space to study the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being.) Emmon’s research indicates that:
- Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).
- Practicing gratitude led to a 7-percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure.
- Counting blessings and gratitude letter writing reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over six months.
- Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25 percent when people keep a gratitude journal.
- Daily gratitude practice can slow down the effects of neurodegeneration that occurs with increasing age.
- Grateful people have 16 percent lower diastolic blood pressure and 10 percent lower systolic blood pressure compared to those less grateful.
- Gratitude is related to a 10 percent improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76 percent of whom had insomnia, and 19 percent lower depression levels.
There is also evidence that practicing gratitude lowers bad cholesterol, blood pressure, creatinine, and the C-reactive protein associated with heart disease. It’s like a miracle drug!
I have to admit I haven’t done much research into practicing gratitude. I haven’t bought any of the cute little books about the art of being grateful that line virtual bookshelves. To me, part of the journey is discovering on your own all the things you are grateful for. It shouldn’t matter what those things are, and realistically, the things I am grateful for may not be the same things that other people are grateful for. It depends on where you are at, what your interests are and what your life experience has been.
I have though, bought into the whole concept of awesomeness which could be a close cousin to gratefulness. I remember meeting Phaedra a few years ago. She was full of awesome. She was quick to say, “Have an awesome day!” or “That’s an awesome idea!” and “Wow, that’s awesome!” I soon realized that no matter what mood I was in, after meeting with her I felt different. I felt. . . .awesome! It really worked! Thank you, Phaedra! So, I did some exploring and fell in love with The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. This awesome book is an international bestseller and I read it cover to cover. Now, I simply take it off the shelf and let it fall open, and read that one random story. It automatically elevates my mood! Like, the one I just read now. Eating the extra fries at bottom of the bag. Who doesn’t love that! If you’re not into buying books, just check out this guy’s website (and he’s from Toronto, by the way! That’s awesome!) http://1000awesomethings.com/the-top-1000/ is an awesome list of things guaranteed to lift your spirits, even if just for a minute. Sometimes we only need one minute, right? I like to pick a random number between 1 and 1000 and look it up. Instant smile! You can listen to Neil’s story here. It’s a great Ted Talk.
I think reminding ourselves of the awesome little things in life that we take for granted is a great way to begin to practice gratitude. Unfortunately, practicing gratitude, actually practicing anything, is often easier said than done. In the fast-paced life we live it is hard to stop and take time to do any kind of mental exercise. It is easier to do the laundry, check your email, run to the store, chat with a co-worker before rushing into yet another meeting. If you are sitting still soaking up the vibes of your mind, it doesn’t appear to the outside world that you are actually doing something. And looking busy seems to be important to most people.
So, try practicing gratitude first thing in the morning, before your toes hit the floor, before you let the dogs out, before. . . .just for a few seconds. Think of three things you are grateful for. I’m always grateful for just waking up! Maybe you’re grateful for a good night’s sleep, for the birds chirping outside your window, for the smell of coffee wafting up to your room. If this doesn’t work and you can’t think of anything to be grateful for first thing in the morning, try taking a few seconds after you turn out the light to go to sleep—as long as you can keep your eyes open long enough! Look back at all the little things that happened during your day. What are you grateful for? Are you grateful for the flowers growing in your backyard? The tomato that has finally turned red? The dog barking to welcome you home? Maybe you are grateful for hitting all the green lights on the way home from a long day at work. Or, making that perfect pickleball shot. Or walking just a few steps more. Whatever it is, it is yours to be grateful for.
Still not buying it? OK, next time you’re waiting for the red light to turn green, or drumming your fingers on the dashboard as you wait for that long train to slowly roll by, think of three things you are grateful for. You’ll find that your frustration at waiting lessens and you can venture on safely and calmly. Or, If you love to journal, keep a gratitude journal. Whatever your method, just do it! And make it a habit! I’m going to. Will you join me?
If you are interested in reading more about the science behind practicing gratitude, check out these sites: