Woman with open arms expressing gratitude, standing on a sunny field

Managing Your Health:

What Is Gratitude?

Margaux Thieme-Burdette November 25, 2020

It’s been on the shortlist for buzzword of the year for quite some time, conjuring up images of peaceful, cross-legged yogis and hands pressed together in prayer. But how many of us know what it truly means and why it can lead to improvements in our daily lives?

Gratitude may be thought of as an emotion, a behavior, an attitude, or even a virtue. While it is often represented as a simple “thank you” when receiving a gift or other kindness, gratitude goes much deeper. It is an active and profound appreciation for someone (including yourself) or something, that can have long-lasting positive and scientifically-measurable effects. This experience can elicit pleasurable feelings and positive emotions.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” -G.K. Chesterton

In The Science of Subjective Well-Being, Michael Eid and Randy Larsen explain that “at the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.” In gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness in life, no matter whether we have a hand in it or not.

The Effects on Our Mind and Body

Practicing gratitude produces both immediate and long-term effects. Even a few minutes of focusing on our own positive qualities, the kindness of others, or the beauty of the natural world can enhance dopamine and serotonin, some of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that regulate mood and other bodily functions. A daily practice can even change neural structures in the brain and promote long-lasting feelings of happiness, reduce stress, and improve sleep (1).

The benefits don’t stop there. Research has shown that gratitude can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and produce a “shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity,” otherwise known as the “rest and digest” state (2). For individuals experiencing anxiety, sensitivities, and other health issues who may be operating in a chronic “fight or flight” mode, sending the body into a relaxed state can positively impact health and aid in the healing process.

People who consistently cultivate feelings of appreciation may also develop more optimism overtime, better preparing them to navigate life’s challenges, such as chronic illness or the COVID-19 pandemic.

Practicing Gratitude

When spending more time alone or managing a chronic health condition, it is even more important to weave the feeling and practice of gratitude into our lives.

Think not only of what you’re grateful for in your life, but why

Start with simple gratitude practices, such as:

  • listing 3 to 5 things you’re grateful for each morning or night
  • writing yourself love notes to keep in visible places
  • sending heartfelt messages to friends and family
  • creating new games or family traditions to instill gratitude
  • following guided meditations in apps like Insight Timer, Headspace, or Happify

Think not only of what you’re grateful for in your life, but why. You may even set up a gratitude nook with candles, calming photos, items from nature like stones or leaves, and a peaceful music playlist. This can be a space to write in your gratitude journal, share quiet moments with your partner or family, or simply sit and let calm wash over you, pondering the wonders of being alive. Practice gratitude in a way that feels good for you – your mind and body may thank you for it!

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  1. Article Sources and Footnotes
    1. Chowdhury, M. (2020, Jan 1). The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety and GriefPositive Psychology.

    2. Emmons, R., McCullough, M. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press, 233, 247.

    3. Eid, M., Larsen, R. (2008). The Science of Subjective Well-Being. Guilford Press.

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