Recently, studies of happiness and emotional well-being have gained popularity in the psychology world, as well as in mainstream media. There has been a massive uptick in research on the nature of gratitude — how we can better harness and cultivate it, its potential impacts on physical health, as well as on mental and emotional well-being.
As 2017 comes to a close, and life start to amp up for the holidays, many of us may use this time as an opportunity to reflect on the last year — what challenges we were met with, but also what brought us great joy. For so many of us this year, simple things like reading the news became troubling and overwhelming parts of daily life. At times, it felt like images of violence, or word of another political scandal, or devastating environmental issues were simply inescapable parts of living in our modern world.
When we feel so overwrought with this negativity and pandemic heartache, it can be all too easy to lose perspective on the parts of our lives we should actually be taking the time to feel grateful for on a regular basis. As we move toward this new year together, it’s more important than ever to recognize that, although there are parts of being a global citizen that can be scary and distressing, there is so much about this human experience that should be celebrated and met with a grateful and open heart.
Creating a more active awareness surrounding the abundance and positivity in our lives can be an advantageous approach to adopt year-round. This shift in focus from a place of lacking to a place of contentedness actually has mental and physical health benefits backed by science.
In the spirit of the upcoming holidays, here are four scientifically-proven benefits of practicing gratitude in your daily life:
1. Improved Self-Esteem
In our digitally-driven world, it has become all too easy to waste our precious time and energy comparing our own lives to the “highlight reels” we see on our peers’ social media platforms. This contemporary version of “Keeping Up With the Joneses” can send many of us into a spiral of self-doubt, negative self-talk, and the destructive and usually inaccurate belief that our current circumstances simply don’t size up to those of our peers.
The distraction and distortion of social media can all too easily take us out of our own lives and stories, and remove us from all of the good that surrounds us in the here and now. Comparing ourselves to others (whether it be in terms of career achievements, social status, or physical appearance) often results in increased resentment toward others and, subsequently, a decrease in self-esteem. When we begin to actively express gratitude for our own lives and circumstances, self-esteem will naturally increase, leading to an overall higher quality of life.
2. Better Sleep
Bedtime can be an anxiety provoking time for many of us. People often find themselves ruminating on negative thoughts or parts of their days while trying to drift off to sleep, resulting in delayed or fragmented snooze time.
Several studies have recently been done on the practice of gratitude and its impact on sleep time and quality. A study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, led by psychology professor Nancy Digdon of MacEwan University, found that writing in a gratitude journal for just 15 minutes before bedtime helped students decrease their anxiety and sleep both longer and better.
Another study at the University of Manchester in England was interested in the impact of gratitude on subject’s sleep quality and duration. This assessment included more than 400 adults (40% had sleep disorders). Researchers asked subjects to fill out questionnaires about gratitude, sleep, and “pre-sleep” thoughts. Gratitude was directly correlated to having more positive thoughts, and less of those nagging, ruminating negative, or anxious thoughts so many of us struggle with when the lights go out at the end of the day. This gratitude and positive-thought connection was directly related to subjects not only falling asleep faster, but experiencing higher quality rest.
3. Boosted Physical Health
Expressing gratitude can actually improve your physical health in more ways than one — think heart health, dietary behavior, kicking unhealthy habits, and exercise to name a few. According to Robert Emmons, a researcher and psychology professor at UC Davis, giving thanks on a routine basis can actually help you meet your exercise goals. In his 2003 study, Emmons found that those who regularly and actively expressed feelings of gratitude by means of a daily journal, also engaged in more cardiovascular physical activity each week.
Additionally, Emmons identified that expressing gratitude can also improve eating habits and cut down on unhealthy habits like cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse. This outcome isn’t all that surprising. When we are at peace and grateful for what is abundant in our lives, we are less likely to self-medicate with potentially harmful substances.
To add to Emmons findings regarding gratitude and physical health, Psychology Today cited several studies that discovered people who report being more grateful also experience fewer aches and pains, and are more likely to visit doctor on a routine basis.
4. Grateful People Have Stronger Relationships
Gratitude is a nutrient that nourishes and deepens our close and intimate relationships. Quite a few recent studies found that gratitude can help deepen and maintain a relationship by promoting a cycle of generosity between partners. One person’s practice of expressing gratitude in the relationship can prompt the other partner to think and act in ways that helps them signal gratitude to each other. This dynamic promotes a desire to hold on to the relationship and a deepening of connection. On days when you are feeling more actively valued by your partner, you are more likely to feel an increase in your own gratitude toward your partner.
In a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, participants who reported feelings of appreciation for their partners not only found more joy and contentment in their relationships, but were also more likely to be together nine months after the study took place than those who did not share these feelings of gratitude.
Many people may be quick to discard these benefits as simple by-products of happiness. People who are emotionally, mentally, and physically balanced tend to be more grateful in general, right?
Contrary to what many naysayers think, this isn’t necessarily the case. Many studies have shown that when people actively take part of their day to actually list the things for which they are grateful, they experience a higher quality of physical and mental health than those who have not done the same. The health benefits of gratitude are not simply correlational, but in many cases, causal.
It’s not always easy to remember to be grateful, especially because the human brain is so adaptable and susceptible to our immediate surroundings. Nonetheless, by making a few small shifts in your perspective, behaviors, and thought patterns, you may find that adopting an attitude of gratitude year-round can make for a healthier and happier life.