“Enjoy the little things. For one day you may look back and realise they were the big things,” Robert Brault.
I write this in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and everywhere around us, the news is unsettling. Life continues to be very difficult for many of us. Things we used to take for granted are not there. Schools are closed, we can’t see our friends and family, we have to work from home or, even worse, suddenly find ourselves unemployed. All in the effort to stay well. To stay alive.
It may seem crazy in this situation to be talking about feeling grateful. But in fact the practice of gratitude can really help us work through difficult times.
One striking example of this our action of clapping every Thursday night to show our gratitude to NHS staff. It’s impossible to put into words how grateful we are to them, but this action is deeply symbolic and uplifting.
Research conducted over the past thirty years has shown how the practice of gratitude can lead to surprising improvements in one’s sense of wellbeing.
A study of Indonesian earthquake victims, discovered that gratitude had a positive impact on their health and their symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This suggests that feeling grateful aids our recovery from traumatic experiences (Lies et al., 2014). Equally, a study of survivors of 9/11 showed that gratitude helped to improve their resilience (Fredrickson et al., 2003; Kashdan et al., 2006).
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is a very powerful human emotion. It’s the way we acknowledge the good things in our lives. Psychologists define gratitude as:
“A positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone” (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).
There are so many good things about feeling gratitude! The brain reacts in a positive way when we are feeling grateful. So we can use gratitude to become a happier person!
Gratitude can lead to:
Gratitude regulates the sympathetic nervous system that activates our anxiety responses At the psychological level it conditions the brain to filter out negative thoughts and instead to focus on the positive ones.
Gratitude also activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus plays a crucial role in many of the body’s key functions, including sleep.
The University of Manchester (2009), looked at how gratitude might affect people’s sleep. The outcome suggested that practising gratitude was related to having more positive thoughts, and fewer negative ones, at bedtime. This was associated with getting to sleep easier and better quality sleep, and having the positive outcome of waking up refreshed and full of energy.
Reduced Stress Levels
Studies indicate people who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Feelings of gratitude and appreciation have been shown to result in a significant increase in levels of immunoglobulin A, which serves as the body’s first line of defense against viruses.
Gratitude may also benefit people with various medical and psychological challenges. For example, one study found that more grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation. Several studies have found that more grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events.
A Happier You!
Expressing gratitude not only to others but also to ourselves, induces positive emotions, primarily happiness. By producing feelings of pleasure and contentment, gratitude impacts on our overall health and well-being as well.
When we express gratitude, and when we receive it, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin. These are the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for the emotions which make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately.
By consciously practising gratitude every day, we can help these neural pathways to becomes stronger. And ultimately to create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.
4 Ways to Practise Gratitude
- Practise grateful self-talk: appreciate yourself – your past achievements, your present efforts, your talents, your skills and strengths
- Keep a Gratitude Journal – there is power in written words. A gratitude journal is your personal space to write down all the things you are grateful for in your life. Small things and big things.
- Show gratitude to others – we all have someone whose unconditional support and love matters to us. Tell them! Write it down send them a note, exchange some good memories or offer your support to them.
- Enjoy your happiness: Sometimes we worry when we are happy or things are going well! That it won’t last, that we don’t deserve it. Enjoy it. Being grateful for your happiness and celebrating it will make you stronger.
The world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D.,. describes it as a choice. We can choose to create gratitude at virtually any moment in our lives. And the more we do that, the more it becomes an automatic response. Helping to rewire our brains in a lasting way.
We all have the ability and the opportunity to cultivate gratitude. Being thankful for the good things in your life makes you feel happier and builds your resilience.
Developing an attitude of gratitude is one of the simplest ways to improve your overall happiness and health.