The emotion has actually been scientifically confirmed to impart some pretty extraordinary health benefits. While the word “gratitude” can be interpreted in a number of ways depending on context,1 the clinical definition of gratitude is “The appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” In short, it’s thankful appreciation for what you have received and/or everything you already have, whether it be tangible or intangible. It’s a recognition of the good in life. As we cultivate a grateful attitude, we are more likely to be happy and spiritually strong. We should regularly express our gratitude to God for the blessings He gives us and to others for the kind acts they do for us. Small, grateful acts every day can uplift us, make a difference for others, and help change the world.
“Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — because we will always want to have something else or something more.” ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast
We should be thankful for the wonderful blessings that are ours and for the tremendous opportunities we have. We can be thankful to our parents, family, friends, and teachers. We should express appreciation to everyone who has assisted us in any way. We should thank our Heavenly Father for His goodness to us by acknowledging His hand in all things, thanking Him for all that He gives us, keeping His commandments, and serving others. We should especially thank Him for His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, for the Savior’s great example, for His teachings, for His outreaching hand to lift and help, for His infinite Atonement.
Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast, suggests that two qualities belong in our basic definition of gratitude. The first is appreciation: You recognize that something is valuable to you, which has nothing to do with its monetary worth. The second quality Br. David mentions is that gratitude is gratis: freely given to you.
Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, also argues that gratitude has two key components: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” In the second part of gratitude, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…We acknowledge that other people…gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
In her book, Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life, Angeles Arrien writes: “Gratitude is essentially the recognition of the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.” She goes on to say: “Gratitude is a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response; it is also a choice we make. We can choose to be grateful, or we can choose to be ungrateful—to take our gifts and blessings for granted. As a choice, gratitude is an attitude or disposition.” Read more…
Of course, religions have long emphasized the importance of gratitude. In the East, Buddha said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” (Katannu Sutta), while in the West, the Bible says, “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In fact, its importance is valued so much that cultures around the world have holiday celebrations focused on gratitude; celebrations such as the Moon Festival in China, Sikkot in Israel, Erntedankfest in Germany, and our own American Thanksgiving, to name but a few.
When Christ healed the ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks. In Chapter 17 of the Book of Luke we read:
“And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.
“And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:
“And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.
“And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.
“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God,
“And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.
“And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?
“There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.
“And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”
All ten lepers were healed. They were physically cured of the disease of leprosy, but only to the Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks did Jesus say, “thy faith hath made the whole.”
The Many Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude can be difficult to define, as it has elements of an emotion, a virtue and a behavior, all rolled into one. As explained in “The Science of Gratitude,” a white paper by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley where Emmons is a professor, the two steps include “1) ‘recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome’ and 2) ‘recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.’”10
In this regard, the benefits of gratitude may be gleaned from the actions of other people or experienced in an internalized manner, such as when feeling gratitude about good fate or nature. In this way, gratitude is both a state and a trait.11
As a state, it’s based on a person’s ability to be empathic and elicit grateful emotions that promote prosocial behavior. As a trait, gratitude describes the practice of being grateful, noticing the little things in life and appreciating the positive in the world and other people. Gratitude can be felt both from being helped by others and habitually focusing on the good in your life.
A study published in Clinical Psychology Review found that gratitude has a positive effect on psychopathology, especially depression, adaptive personality characteristic, positive social relationships and physical health, including stress and sleep. What’s more, they noted that “the benefits of gratitude to well-being may be causal.”12
Fox also explained, “Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health,”13 including improved resilience.
It’s likely that gratitude leads to benefits via multiple mechanisms, not only by improving life satisfaction14 but also by contributing to an increase in healthy activities and a willingness to seek help for health problems.15 Those who are grateful have even been found to have a better sense of the meaning of life by being able to perceive good family function and peer relationships.16
Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,3 an expert in brain and mind health, once said,4 “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” Indeed, the fields of psychiatry and primary care are turning out to be tightly intertwined and overlapping,5 as studies have linked the practice of gratitude to:
- Reduced stress and emotional distress, in part by improving emotional resiliency6
- Improved sleep7 – A number of studies have found that gratitude helps improve sleep. For example, a study in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that the practice of gratitude can help us sleep longer and more soundly, perhaps by acting as a remedy for pre-sleep worries or depression.
- Better heart health,8 reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
- Measurable beneficial effects on the mood neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, inflammatory cytokines, immune function,9 blood pressure, blood sugar, testosterone(sex hormone), oxytocin (social bonding hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone)
- Improved self-care, such as getting exercise, eating well and getting regular health checkups,10leading to fewer health complaints and doctor visits11
Aside from its biological effects, gratitude also creates a benevolent ripple effect into other areas of your life, and has been shown to improve your:12,13,14,15
- Intimate relationships, generating a greater sense of connectedness and satisfaction as a couple16
- Patience, willpower and impulse control, all of which allow you to make better decisions17,18
- Mental health, significantly improving symptoms of depression19 and anxiety, increasing joy, sustained happiness, overall life satisfaction and general sense of well-being20 and pleasure21
- Ability to overcome the negative effects of materialism and reduce materialistic strivings, which is a well-recognized source of unhappiness and frustration22
- Improved work performance (in one study, managers who expressed gratitude saw a 50 percent increase in the employees’ performance)
Studies have also demonstrated that gratitude exercises such as writing down what you’re grateful for and paying-it-forward results in neural changes that create a positive feedback loop, increasing your ability to experience gratitude in the future. In other words, your sense of gratitude is strengthened through the feeling and doing of it.
Gratitude Increases Joy and Builds Sustained Happiness
The stoic philosopher Cicero espoused, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
According to the Harris Poll Happiness Index, only 1 in 3 Americans reports being “very happy.” More than half say they’re frustrated at or by work.24 Other research suggests nearly 1 in 4 experiences no life enjoyment at all.25
The good news is, small changes in perspective and/or behavior can add up, and practicing gratitude may be at the top of the list of strategies known to boost feelings of joy, ultimately leading to sustained, long-term happiness and life satisfaction. Gratitude is also neutrally linked with generosity,26,27 and as you’d suspect, generosity has been shown to augment happiness as well.
If you’re among those who could use a happiness boost, consider cultivating an attitude of gratitude — every day. A simple and proven way of doing this is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you document the things you’re grateful for.
In one study,28 participants who kept a gratitude diary and reflected on what they were grateful for just four times a week for three weeks improved their depression, stress and happiness scores. A few tips to consider as you journal:
- Focus on the benevolence of other people. Doing so will increase your sense of being supported by life and decrease unnecessary anxiety
- Focus on what you have received rather than what’s been withheld
- Avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages. Doing so will only erode your sense of security
For Well-Being, You Need Three Positive Emotions for Each Negative One
Several other gratitude-strengthening and happiness-boosting practices are listed in the section below. The key is consistency. Find a way to incorporate your chosen method into each week; ideally do it each day, and stick with it. Place a reminder note on your bathroom mirror if you need to, or schedule it into your calendar along with all of your other important to-do’s.
Remember, a key feature of gratitude and happiness is to take the time to acknowledge your positive emotions; don’t minimize or suppress them. The benefit is in the actual experiencing of the emotion. According to Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist and positive-emotions researcher, most Americans have two positive experiences for every negative one.
Remarkably, this 2-to-1 positivity ratio is barely enough to keep you going. To actually flourish emotionally, Fredrickson’s research29 shows you need a 3-to-1 ratio. This means you need three positive emotions for every negative.
Practical Strategies to Strengthen Gratitude and Boost Happiness
Following are a diverse array of practices, recommended by various experts and researchers, that can boost your gratitude (and happiness) quotient. You can also get more ideas from Robert Emmons’ lecture above. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, is one of the leading scientific experts on gratitude who has written several books on the topic.
For example, one of the things he discusses is the ability to receive. Many of us enjoy gift giving, but respond with anxiety or some other qualitatively negative emotion when we receive gifts. We may worry about the cost, feeling we don’t deserve or really need something that expensive, and so on. So, remember, practicing gratitude involves joyous acceptance of the gift.
If you like, conduct your own little experiment: Write down your current level of happiness and life satisfaction on a piece of paper or your annual calendar, using a rating system of zero to 10. Every three months or so (provided you’ve actually been doing your gratitude exercise), reevaluate and rerank yourself.
Write thank-you notes — When thanking someone, remember to be specific; recognize the effort involved and the cost, and focus on the other person, not yourself (see verbal praise). To flex your gratitude muscle, make it a point to write thank-you notes or letters in response to each gift or kind act — or simply as a show of gratitude for someone being in your life.
Give verbal praise and say “thank you” more often — Saying thank you and giving praise is much like the practice above, only verbal. As above, keep the focus on the other person and not yourself, for optimal results. Research shows that using “other-praising” phrases are far more effective than “self-beneficial” phrases. For example, praising a partner saying, “thank you for going out of your way to do this,” is more powerful than a compliment framed in terms of how you benefited, such as “it makes me happy when you do that.”
Even in hardship, we should be grateful for the lessons contained therein. Without the rain, we would never appreciate the sunshine.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Say grace at each meal — Adopting the ritual of saying grace at each meal — and not just over Thanksgiving dinner — is a great way to practice gratitude on a daily basis,32 and will also foster a deeper connection to your food.
While this can be a perfect opportunity to honor a spiritual connection with the divine, you don’t have to turn it into a religious speech if you don’t want to. You could simply say, “I am grateful for this food, and appreciate all the time and hard work that went into its production, transportation and preparation.”
Change your perception — Disappointment — especially if you’re frequently struggling with things “not going your way” — can be a major source of stress, which is known to have far-reaching effects on your health and longevity.
In fact, centenarians overwhelmingly cite stress as the most important thing to avoid if you want to live a long and healthy life. Since stress is virtually unavoidable, the key is to develop and strengthen your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t wear you down over time.
Rather than dwelling on negative events, most centenarians figured out how to let things go, and you can do that too. It takes practice, though. It’s a skill that must be honed daily, or however often you’re triggered.
A foundational principle to let go of negativity is the realization that the way you feel has little to do with the event itself, and everything to do with your perception of it. Wisdom of the ancients dictates that events are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is your belief about the event that upsets you, not the fact that it happened.
As noted by Ryan Holiday, author of “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living,” “The Stoics are saying, ‘This happened to me,’ is not the same as, ‘This happened to me and that’s bad.’ They’re saying if you stop at the first part, you will be much more resilient and much more able to make some good out of anything that happens.” According to the site The Daily Stoic, gratitude is an integral part of stoicism. “The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying ‘Thank you’ for every experience was the key to mental health.”
Be mindful of your nonverbal actions — Smiling and hugging are both ways of expressing gratitude, encouragement, excitement, empathy and support. These physical actions also help strengthen your inner experience of positive emotions.
Prayer and/or mindfulness meditation — Expressing thanks during prayer or meditation is another way to cultivate gratitude. Practicing mindfulness means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now.
A mantra is sometimes used to help maintain focus, but you can also focus on something that you’re grateful for, such as a pleasant smell, a cool breeze or a lovely memory.
Create a nightly gratitude ritual — One suggestion is to create a gratitude jar, into which the entire family can add notes of gratitude on a daily basis. Any jar or container will do. Simply write a quick note on a small slip of paper and put it into the jar.
Some make an annual (or biannual or even monthly) event out of going through the whole jar, reading each slip out loud. If you have young children, a lovely ritual suggested by Dr. Alison Chen in a Huffington Post article is to create a bedtime routine that involves stating what you’re grateful for out loud.
Spend money on activities instead of things — According to recent research, spending money on experiences not only generates more gratitude than material consumption, it also motivates greater generosity.
As noted by coauthor Amit Kumar, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago, “People feel fortunate, and because it’s a diffuse, untargeted type of gratitude, they’re motivated to give back to people in general.”
Embrace the idea of having “enough” — According to many who have embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, the key to happiness is learning to appreciate and be grateful for having “enough.” Financial hardship and work stress (to a degree caused by excessive expenditures, necessitating more work to pay the bills) are two significant contributors to depression and anxiety. The answer is to buy less and appreciate more. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, practice being grateful for the things you already have, and release yourself from the iron-grip of advertising, which tells you there’s lack in your life.
Many who have adopted the minimalist lifestyle claim they’ve been able to reduce the amount of time they have to work to pay their bills, freeing up time for volunteer work, creative pursuits and taking care of their personal health, thereby dramatically raising their happiness and life satisfaction. The key here is deciding what “enough” is. Consumption itself is not the problem; unchecked and unnecessary shopping is. It’s like being on a hamster wheel — you keep shopping, thinking happiness and life satisfaction will come with it. Yet it never does. Many times, accumulation of material goods is a symptom that you may be trying to fill a void in your life, yet that void can never be filled by material things.
More often than not, the void is silently asking for more love, personal connection, or experiences that bring purpose and passionate engagement. So, make an effort to identify your real, authentic emotional and spiritual needs, and then focus on fulfilling those needs in ways that do not involve shopping.
Spend more time in nature — Many will naturally feel more grateful for life when they’re more connected to nature. It has a way of putting things into perspective.
Research also shows spending time in nature helps reduce rumination (obsessive negative thoughts that go ’round and ’round without ever getting to any kind of resolution). Ruminating thoughts light up a region in your brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area that regulates negative emotions, and is associated with an increased risk for anxiety and depression.
Other recent research shows that the mere sounds of nature have a distinct effect on your brain, lowering fight-or-flight instincts and activating your rest-and-digest autonomic nervous system., Previous research has also demonstrated that listening to nature sounds help you recover faster after a stressful event.
How Gratitude Changes Your Brain
Gratitude has distinct neurobiological correlates, including in brain regions associated with interpersonal bonding and stress relief.4 When Fox and colleagues elicited gratitude in 23 female subjects, via stories of survivors of the Holocaust, “ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex,” which are associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind.5
Individual differences in proneness to gratitude are also linked to increased gray matter volume in the brain,6 and it’s possible that it elicits long-term changes in your psyche. Fox grew deeply interested in gratitude after his mother’s death from ovarian cancer. During her illness, he would send her studies on the benefits of gratitude in cancer patients, and she kept a gratitude journal in her last years.
In one example, 92 adults with advanced cancer engaged in mindful gratitude journaling or routine journaling. After seven days, those who kept a gratitude journal had significant improvements in measures of anxiety, depression and spiritual well-being, such that the researchers concluded “mindful gratitude journaling could positively affect the state of suffering, psychological distress and quality of life of patients with advanced cancer.”7
“Grateful people tend to recover faster from trauma and injury,” Fox told The Pulse. “They tend to have better and closer personal relationships and may even just have improved health overall.”8 When he tried to find gratitude after losing his mother, what he experienced wasn’t a quick fix or an immediate route to happiness, but a way to make his grief more manageable in the moment.
As it turns out, grateful writing such as letters of gratitude is a positive psychological intervention that leads to longer term changes in mental health. Among 293 adults who sought out psychotherapy services, those who engaged in gratitude writing reported significantly better mental health after four and 12 weeks than people who did not writing or who wrote about their thoughts and feelings.9
Emmons quotes from our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln:
“We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation ever has grown; but we have forgotten God! We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”
Gratitude. It requires humility. It requires self-reflection. It requires recognizing that there is a force greater than ourselves, to which we owe a world of thanks.
There are so many things to be grateful for. So, what are you grateful for today?
- The Profound Health Benefits of Being Grateful