Well-being and wellness has been a recurring theme lately on this blog (click here to read about self-care for family caregivers and click here to read about how to reduce stress). It has never been more important to ensure your emotional well-being is taken care of but in today's world it can seem to be more difficult than ever to do just that. Today we are going to take a look at another aspect of emotional wellness.
Expressing gratitude seems to be an innate human attribute as we all do it in one form or another. You may say to yourself that it is easy to be grateful when you are in good times but why and how can someone express gratitude when times are tough? Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, wanted to know and decided to find out.
“For too long, the concept of gratitude had been ignored,” said Emmons, director of the university’s Emmons Lab, which creates and shares scientific data on gratitude, its causes, and its potential effects on human health and well-being. He calls it “the forgotten factor in the science of well-being."
Dr. Eammons speaks to exactly this question in an article from 2013.
Some argue that it’s impossible to be grateful in the midst of suffering. When life is going well, when there’s abundance—sure, then we can be grateful. But what about when we’re facing hard times?
I believe not only is gratitude possible in those circumstances—it’s vital to helping us get through them. When faced with adversity, gratitude helps us see the big picture and not feel overwhelmed by the setbacks we’re facing in the moment. That attitude of gratitude can actually motivate us to tackle the challenges before us. Without a doubt, it can be hard to take this grateful perspective, but research suggests it is possible, and it is worth it.
Consider a study led by my colleague Philip Watkins, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, in which participants were asked to recall an unpleasant, unresolved memory—a time they were victimized or betrayed or hurt in some way that still made them upset. The participants were randomly assigned to complete one of three different writing exercises, one of which involved focusing on positive aspects of the upsetting experience and considering how it might now make them feel grateful.
The results showed that the gratitude group reported feeling more closure and less unpleasant emotions than participants who didn’t write about their experience from a grateful perspective. The grateful writers weren’t told to deny or ignore the negative aspects of their memory. Yet they seemed more resilient in the face of those troubles.
Similarly, roughly a decade ago, I asked people suffering from severe neuromuscular disorders to keep a gratitude journal over two weeks. Given that much of their lives involved intense discomfort and visits to pain clinics, I wondered whether they’d be able to find anything to be grateful for. Yet not only did they find reasons to be grateful, but they also experienced significantly more positive emotions than a similar group that didn’t keep a gratitude journal. The gratitude group also felt more optimistic about the upcoming week, felt more connected to others (even though many of them lived alone), and reported getting more sleep each night—an important indicator of overall health and well-being.
So again, this is a gratitude myth that can be debunked. Science suggests we can cultivate or maintain an attitude of gratitude through hard times, and that we’ll be better for it.
So we know that it is important to have a sense of gratitude even when it might not be easy but what will it actually do for those who practice it? Dr. Emmons states repeatedly that gratitude can improve life in many ways so let us take a look at just how that presents itself. Here are nine reasons why giving thanks is actually good for you.
Counting blessings boosts your health. Emmons’ and McCullough’s research showed that grateful people had less depression and stress, lower blood pressure, more energy, and greater optimism.
Slow down the aging clock. In older adults, Emmons and McCullough found, a daily practice of gratitude even slowed down some of the effects of neurodegeneration that often occurs as we age.
Put the brakes on stress. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” and when our bodies produce too much, it can deplete the immune system and raise blood sugar levels. A study conducted at the Institute of HeartMath Research Center in California found that positive emotions like appreciation significantly lowered levels of cortisol.
Being thankful helps you bond. Research by U.S. psychologists Sara Algoe and Baldwin Way indicates that gratitude also can lead to better relationships. The explanation may be connected to increased production of oxytocin, sometimes called the “bonding hormone” because it fosters calm and security in relationships.
Gratefulness = good for the heart and waistline? According to research Emmons cites in his book Gratitude Works!, people with high blood pressure who actively express thankfulness “can achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in systolic blood pressure and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20 percent.” With Thanksgiving and other food-centered holidays coming up next month, that’s a potential benefit to be grateful for all year long.
Improves your sleep quality. Having trouble catching the ZZZs? Write down what you are thankful for as you begin to feel drowsy. Researchers have discovered if you record what you’re grateful for 15 minutes before bedtime, you’ll fall asleep faster, longer and have a better sleep quality.
Deepen your relationships. It's about the little things that one partner does for the other, like feed the kids so you can sleep in. It's a simple phone call from an old friend that you haven't heard from in months, just to check in. Gratitude makes your relationship stronger, and that's reinforced when you spend time writing down those little things. The simple act of jotting these little things down reinforces their importance to you.
Give your career a boost. Expressing gratitude can make you a more effective manager, assist you with networking and boost your decision-making skills. The result helps you gain headway on your career path, making your workplace an enjoyable place to be.
Gratitude strengthens your immune system. Optimism is on the same positive emotion spectrum as expression of gratitude, which is linked with better immune system health. Stressed-out people who see situations with a positive light and sense of gratitude have more immune-boosting blood cells than those who are pessimistic.
With benefits like these, maybe we should practice being thankful more than once a year. What else can people do to cultivate more gratitude in their lives? “Make a commitment to write down at least three things you’re grateful for each day for 30 days. Make each one as specific as possible — there’s value in the details,” Emmons said. “It will shift your reality.”