How gratitude can contribute to your physical and mental well-being

Publisher’s note: David G. Allan is the Editorial Director of CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, which you can subscribe to here.

(CNN) —
If you really think about it, many of us should be in a perpetual state of gratitude.

Which of these things do you have going for you right now? Family, friends, love, health. Be free from war and natural disasters. Imagination. Community. A roof over our heads. Common decency. Hope. Opportunity. Memories. Financial stability. Favorite places. Days off at work. The good weather. The golden age of television. The books. The music. The Ice creams. Weekends. A friendly exchange. Something good happened today. Something bad that didn’t happen today. A good cup of coffee.

We may not have everything you want (or even need) on my list or yours, but that probably still leaves buckets, nay, container ships, full of tangible and conceptual items to be thankful for. Things can always be better, but they can also be worse. It often depends on how you look at the proverbial glass of water.

To get more in touch with gratitude, and reap its health benefits, the trick is to find easy ways to count blessings more often than, say, during the annual turkey dinner. Bring your gratitude to the forefront of your mind and it will increase your overall appreciation of life.

Try to be more grateful for the small and mundane things that give you joy and meaning, as well as the big ones.

Being thankful for just a handful of things each day will benefit you, and there are ways to make it a habit.

Greater gratitude = better health

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of tokens of gratitude is that they are closely linked to increased feelings of happiness for both givers and receivers.

On this week’s episode of CNN’s “Chasing Life” podcast, host Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Christina Costa, a professor and Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan who has studied neuroscience and psychology. She explained how gratitude can be seen in brain scans. The feeling turns on the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which Gupta noted also decrease stress-associated hormones like cortisol.

“Neurotransmitter reactions are pretty immediate,” Costa said. “It’s hard to feel bad when you focus on someone you’re very grateful to, something that has changed your life, or something that’s going great today.”

Resilience, including the ability to cope with stress and trauma, is also correlated with gratitude. Studies have shown that being aware of things to be thankful for was a PTSD management factor for Vietnam War veterans and an effective coping strategy for many after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other research shows that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to show patience and self-control. It can even be good for marriages and relationships: Couples who are good at showing appreciation tend to be “more committed and more likely to stay in their relationships over time.” It seems that our best selves are our most grateful selves.

Studies have shown that gratitude can also indirectly influence physical health. “Gratitude strengthens the immune system and helps you experience less pain,” Costa said on the “Chasing Life” podcast.

Those with “dispositional gratitude,” defined by one study as “part of a larger life orientation toward observing and appreciating the positive in the world,” are more likely to report good physical health, a propensity for healthy activities and willingness to seek help for health problems.

In another study, New York teens who ranked as the most grateful in their class, defined as “having a disposition and frame of mind that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives,” were less likely to abuse of drugs and alcohol. The benefits of having more gratitude also correlated with heart benefits among patients who had experienced heart failure.

Being grateful can even make you sleep better. According to a study involving college students who instituted various methods to increase gratitude, such as a gratitude journal, they worried less about bedtime and slept longer and better. In another study, UK adults (40% of whom had sleep disorders) reported that thinking about what they’re grateful for at night made them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Convinced? Let’s get to the fun part.

How to increase your gratitude quotient?

I am currently conducting two non-scientific experiments to increase gratitude. I have been keeping a gratitude journal for almost two years. And for about five years now, my family has had a dinnertime ritual called “Roses, Thorns, and Buds,” in which the same details appear.

Much has been written about these and other gratitude experiments, and it should be noted that there are no rules or even regulations that govern them. We’re in very, very soft science territory here. But reliable research shows that anything you do to increase gratitude pays off, so it’s worth finding what’s easy, enjoyable, and effective for you.

An gratitude journal It doesn’t have to be more complicated than having a notebook next to your bed and starting to write down each night who and what you thank that day. Journaling was the standard approach in some of the studies cited above, making it a simple and effective option.

I’m going to be two years into testing this method, and I’ve added an extra layer to it that you might want to consider. After a year, I took the time to add up all the mentions. As expected, my wife and children were in the lead, reminding me not to take them for granted. But I was surprised to see that co-workers, neighbors and the city park were at the top. It was helpful for me to review that way, because when I see those people, I have this added layer of positive feeling towards them in the forefront of my mind. It’s hard to feel upset about someone when you think, “I’m often grateful for that person.”

It was also fun to play with the data. By category, “family” was the clear winner (1,011 times) for me, followed by “places” (269 times, with coffee shops being the largest subcategory), “friends” (259), CNN “co-workers” (197) and “experiences” (133). Also, “Star Wars” (11) beat beer (10) and books (8). It will be interesting to compare year two totals to these. All of this is getting me closer to understanding and remembering what I appreciate the most.

Roses, Thorns & Buds (or RTB, among its devotees) has been a part of so many family dinners since my oldest daughter was 4, I’ve forgotten where we first heard of this method. It’s very simple: each of the diners takes turns sharing “roses”, which are something positive and joyful from her day; “thorns”, which are the opposite of that; and “buds” for something that we are excited about and that we anticipate will be a rose. Sometimes family food and sharing these things is a rose in itself.

Of course, the “thorn” does not necessarily increase gratitude, although it is still useful from the perspective of family discussion, empathy, and problem solving. And if you manage to solve a problem, a rose can grow in the place of that thorn.

These are our unscientific conclusions: Each time, we find that we have many roses and buds, and usually only one thorn to share.

Some friends have told us about effective variations of this technique, so there is no one version that works for everyone. If the metaphor is too flowery for you, choose another. dohome runs, strikeouts Y on deck? The important thing is to connect with gratitude in this way, whether you do it most evenings or on weekends. It’s also an easy way for kids to get into the habit of gratitude.

The jars of happiness, a strategy popularized by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert, is something of a hybrid between gratitude journaling and reflection journaling. The idea is to write the happiest moment of the day on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. The advantage of doing it this way is that, in moments of unhappiness, you can take a message from the jar and remember those moments, and perhaps feel grateful for them again. Gilbert was struck by the fact that many of her followers share photos of their decorated pots of happiness (check Pinterest, if you need inspiration) and that her happiest moments are “generally very ordinary and quiet and inconspicuous.”

And there are other experiments you can try. You could set alarms or reminders on your phone to pause and think about something you’re grateful for at different times of the day – mornings help set the tone for the day, and reflecting while at work can be especially helpful. You can then record them in a gratitude journal app.

You can also focus on just saying thank you, and mean it, more often. It pays to write thank you letters (or emails, if you want to be faster and more frequent) to the people you feel gratitude for on a regular basis. You can also express your gratitude with gifts, flowers, and favors. Or simply make a list of all the things that we take for granted, but that we would not like to lose, such as job security, health or seeing loved ones. Check that list every week or so.

However you begin to infuse your life with more moments of gratitude, short-term and long-term, you’ll be glad you did.

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