An ever-growing body of research confirms that gratitude has a number of potent health benefits. As noted by Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,1 an expert in brain and mind health:2 "If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system." Gratitude actually alters your brain in a number of beneficial ways.
Improve physical health by having a general pain-lowering effect, lowering inflammation and blood sugar, improving immune function,4blood pressure and heart health5 and encouraging general self-care
Increase happiness and life satisfaction by lowering stress and emotional distress
Improve emotional resiliency, which also helps combat stress and anxiety
Improve mental health by triggering the release of antidepressant and mood-regulating chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin, while inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol
Improve sleep,6 which can have far-reaching benefits for physical and mental health
Research has also demonstrated that gratitude is the single best predictor of good relationships. Indeed, long before modern scientists confirmed these benefits, the philosophers of old espoused gratitude as the way to sanity, good health and life satisfaction.
I recently finished reading "The Little Book of Gratitude," by Robert Emmons. It's a great book that I highly recommend if you need some inspiration. In it, he states, "We did not create or fashion ourselves, and we did not get to where we are in life by ourselves. So, living in gratitude is living in truth. It is the most accurate and honest approach to life."
According to Emmons, gratitude involves "affirming the good and recognizing its sources. It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift, accompanied by an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted."
Generosity and Happiness Are Neurally Linked
Interestingly, generosity has also been linked to happiness, which may seem counterintuitive since giving to others means sacrificing some of your own physical or emotional resources. Still, many decide to do it anyway — perhaps because they anticipate the feel-good afterglow.7 This experience has now been validated by science showing that generosity and happiness are actually wired together in your brain. As explained by the researchers:8
"We hypothesized that participants who had committed to spending their endowment on others would behave more generously in the decision-making task as well as self-report greater increases in happiness as compared to the control group. Importantly, we predicted that the neural link between generosity and happiness would involve functional interactions between brain regions engaged in generous behavior (TPJ) and those mediating happiness (ventral striatum).
The results confirmed our hypotheses. We found significantly higher levels of generous behavior and happiness, as reflected by greater TPJ activity for generous choices and generosity-related connectivity of the TPJ with striatal happiness regions in the experimental group. We thus conclude that the interplay of these brain regions links commitment-induced generosity with happiness."
Unfortunately, many underestimate the link between generosity and happiness, and in fact assume the opposite — that they will be happier after spending money on themselves than others, for example.9 Now that you know otherwise, you can put this pearl of wisdom to good use. As study author, professor Phillipe Tobler, from the department of economics at the University of Zurich, said in a news release, "You don't need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice."10
Gratitude Is a Form of Generosity
Generosity does not necessarily have to involve money. Indeed, gratitude is a form of generosity, because it involves offering or extending "something" to another person — even if it's only a verbal affirmation of thanks. After all, it's not yourself you are grateful for but rather something or someone outside of yourself. Moreover, as noted by Emmons:
"In order for gratitude to exist, the giver must act intentionally, typically at some self-sacrifice, to bestow something worthwhile. The one receiving the gift needs to recognize it as a gift, as something good that was freely given. So gratitude engages at least three different aspects of the mind. We intellectually recognize the benefit, we willingly acknowledge this benefit, and we emotionally appreciate both the gift and the giver.
The term "gift" is important in this context because gifts are unearned, things we are not owed by the giver and to which we are not entitled ... When we are grateful, we recognize that we have no claim on the gift or benefit received, and it was freely bestowed out of compassion, generosity or love.
To recognize this gift is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is not simply a strategy or tactic for feeling better or for increasing our personal happiness. It does something much more than that. Gratitude enables a person to feel good and also to do good."
Sow Seeds of Gratitude Every Day
Even if you don't often feel gratitude right now, know it can be cultivated and strengthened with practice. One way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal where you write down what you're grateful for each day. This can be done in a paper journal, or you can download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.11
In one 2015 study,12 participants who kept a gratitude diary and reflected on what they were grateful for four times a week for three weeks reported improvements in depression, stress and happiness. A mindfulness intervention, consisting of a mindfulness diary and mindfulness meditation, led to similar improvements. Indeed, it's important to remember that you get more of what you focus on, so be mindful of the kinds of thoughts you entertain — especially at night. Emmons suggests:
"After you get into bed, but before drifting off to sleep, try to focus on pleasant thoughts — good things happening to your family or friends; the soothing sounds in your bedroom; how fortunate you are to be in good health; future plans, such as holidays or an upcoming trip; enjoyable things you did during the past few days; how relaxed you are feeling; good things that other people have done for you ...
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has said that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. Rest your mind upon worry, sadness, annoyance and irritability and it will begin to take the shape neurally of anxiety, depression and anger. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for, and begin to take the shape of gratitude.
Everything we do creates connections within networks of the brain, and the more you repeat something, the stronger those connections get. The mind can change the brain in lasting ways. In other words, what flows through the mind sculpts the brain."
Avoiding getting sucked into bad news is the other side of this equation. You may have to limit your media exposure if you find it difficult to maintain a positive outlook in the face of world events. The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be a helpful tool if you struggle with pessimism.
EFT is a form of psychological acupressure based on the energy meridians used in acupuncture. It's an effective way to quickly restore your inner balance and healing and helps rid your mind of negative thoughts and emotions. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for gratitude.
What I'm Grateful for Right Now
As Mercola.com celebrates its 20th year online, I have much to be thankful for, especially my awesome staff, without whom this website would not be what it is today. There are many editors, customer support, an IT tech team and great managers and administrators that make all of this possible.
You may not realize it but when I started the site 20 years ago, I was the only employee and I still had a full time medical practice. I found the articles, edited them and uploaded them to the site. It wasn't until a year or two later that I actually hired a sorely needed editor, and then additional staff followed. I also never sold anything on the site for about five years but realized I could not pay the bills on my salary, so eventually I took the steps necessary to make the site pay for itself.
I also want to express my deep gratitude to all of you who support this work by reading the newsletter and sharing your knowledge of and experience with these health principles with your family and friends, thereby "paying it forward" in countless ways, helping the world get healthier one person at a time.
I often receive notes of thanks from readers, some of which are featured in the video above. Knowing that people are turning their lives around and regaining their health brings me great joy and satisfaction. My search for optimal health has been a lifelong journey, and I am grateful for all of you who walk the path with me.
So many people struggle needlessly, having been fooled by the food and drug industries deceptive propaganda that, for many decades now, have pointed everyone in the wrong direction. Together, we are making a difference though, helping turn the current disease paradigm around. While it's certainly true that we still have a long way to go, positive changes are afoot, and in time, I believe truth and sanity will prevail. We just have to maintain a positive attitude and keep going.
Simple Practices That Strengthen Your Gratitude Muscle
In conclusion, following is a list of suggestions summarized from Emmons' book, "The Little Book of Gratitude," which will help strengthen your sense of thankfulness:
Focus on the benevolence of other people instead of being so self-centered. Doing so will increase your sense of being supported by life and decrease unnecessary anxieties. Cherishing the kindness of others also means you're less likely to take them for granted.
Focus on what you have received rather than what's been withheld. "The 'surplus' mode will increase our feelings of worth; the 'deficit' mode will lead us to think how incomplete our life is," Emmons says.
Acknowledge your positive emotions rather than suppressing them. "Gratitude recruits other positive emotions, such as joy, contentment and hope, and these produce direct physical benefits through the immune or endocrine systems," Emmons writes. "A grateful perspective on life is a stress-buster, so grateful people are more equipped than others to deal with uncertainties, ambiguities and situations that trigger anxiety."
Avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages. Doing so will only erode your sense of security. As Emmons notes, "Wanting more is related to increased anxiety and unhappiness. A healthier comparison is to contemplate what life would be like without a pleasure that you now enjoy ... Gratitude buffers you from emotions that drive anxiety. You cannot be grateful and envious, or grateful while harboring regrets."
Give credit to others while also acknowledging your own contributions. Expressing gratitude is not an either/or proposition. Being grateful for someone's help does not negate your own contributions.
Emmons also includes a number of practical exercises in his book. Here are two that will help you flex your gratitude muscle:
1. Write a letter to a person for whom you feel grateful. "Describe specifically why you are grateful, how he or she has affected your life, and how often you reflect on his or her efforts," Emmons suggests. "If you feel [like it] you can deliver the letter in person, arrange to visit but do not say what the visit is about.
Read your letter out loud to the recipient. Be prepared to have your heart touched and to see the other person's heart touched as well. Allow yourself to open up to whatever the experience has in store for both of you, and spend some time talking about it with your friend."
2. Practice mindful thank yous for seven days straight. "When thanking someone who has done something for you, whether large or small, be specific, comment on the effort it has taken, and the cost, and keep the focus on that person," Emmons suggests. "For example, 'Thank you for bringing me my tea in bed. I really appreciate you getting up early each day. You're so thoughtful.' The key to effectiveness is to achieve some separation between the kind act and your expression."