While a healthy lifestyle can include many different things, perhaps one of the most overlooked is purposely adopting an attitude of gratitude. There’s an awful lot of stress and unhappiness in the world, and gratitude is an effective remedy that costs nothing.
The World Happiness Report,1 issued annually since 2012, looks at gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom of choice, social support, generosity and perception of corruption occurring in 156 countries. For 2019, the United States’ ranking dropped for the third year in a row, placing it 19th.
As reported by Vox,2 the authors of the report suggest drug addiction may play a significant role in Americans’ declining happiness. Loneliness is also becoming an increasingly common problem, with 46% of American adults reporting they sometimes or always feel lonely and 47% saying they do not have meaningful in-person social interactions on daily basis.3,4,5
Ditto for depression. According to the latest statistics,6 17.3 million American adults (7.1 percent of the adult U.S. population) and 3.2 million adolescents (13.3 percent of U.S. population aged 12 to 17) suffered at least one major depressive episode in 2017, and 16.7% of U.S. adults use psychiatric drugs.7,8 While it may be tempting to medicate away persistent feelings of unhappiness and anxiety, it’s not a long-term solution.
If your joy quotient could use a boost, commit to cultivating gratitude on a daily basis. As with other lifestyle strategies, consistency — really making it a regular part of your everyday life — is what allows true and lasting change to take place. In this case, allowing for a greater sense of happiness and contentment to arise.
What is gratitude?
As noted by Robert Emmons, one of the leading scientific experts on this topic, “Gratitude is an emotional state and an attitude toward life that is a source of human strength in enhancing one’s personal and relational well-being.”9 In his paper, he points out that gratitude has a long tradition within world religions, where it is viewed as a virtue that leads to a good life.
According to Emmons, gratitude has two key components.10 First of all, it’s an “affirmation of goodness.” In short, when you feel or express gratitude, you affirm that you live in a benevolent world.
Second, it’s a recognition that the source of benevolence comes from outside of yourself; that other people (or higher powers, if you so like) have provided you with “gifts.” In Emmons’ view, gratitude is “a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
One simple and proven11 way of cultivating gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you document the things you’re thankful for each day. As you journal, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- 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, more things or “better luck,” as doing so will erode your sense of security. If you’re going to slip into comparisons, contemplate what your life would be like if you didn’t have something you currently enjoy
How gratitude benefits your psychological health
From a psychological perspective, the practice of gratitude has been shown to:
• Increase happiness and life satisfaction12
• Lower stress13
• Increase your perceived level of social support14
• Improve emotional resiliency15 — As noted in one study,16 “positive emotions contribute to psychological and physical well-being via more effective coping,” and that “positive emotions play a crucial role in enhancing coping resources in the face of negative events.” By improving resiliency, gratitude helps you “bounce back” faster when something negative happens
• Reduce symptoms of depression17,18 — According to one study,19 “Correlation analysis showed that gratitude, depression, peace of mind and rumination were interrelated … Results … suggested that gratitude may … counteract the symptoms of depression by enhancing a state of peace of mind and reducing ruminative thinking.”
This benefit also has biological underpinnings, as researchers have confirmed that gratitude triggers the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.20
It also stimulates your hypothalamus (a brain area involved in the regulation of stress) and your ventral tegmental area (part of your brain’s reward circuitry that produces pleasurable feelings).21 In short, it actually helps alter your brain in beneficial ways
Gratitude benefits physical health and work too
The beneficial effects of gratitude as a state of mind are not limited to your psychology, however. According to Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,22 an expert in brain and mind health, gratitude has “a health maintenance indication for every major organ system” in your body.23 Indeed, research has found gratitude:
- Reduces pain24 and lowers inflammation25,26
- Improves your heart rate variability, which can help lower blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease27
- Lowers risk for heart disease — According to one study, “Efforts to increase gratitude may be a treatment for improving well-being in heart failure patients’ lives and may be of potential clinical value”28,29
- Improves general health by encouraging self-care30,31
- Improves sleep32,33,34 (which in and of itself can have wide ranging health benefits, lowering your risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and much more)
Studies have also shown gratitude can have a beneficial impact on other areas of your life as well — boosting productivity,35 reducing materialism and increasing generosity,36 for example. All of which can improve your general “happiness score.”
Excessive materialism blocks gratitude
Gratitude is actually a form of generosity, because it involves offering or extending “something” to another person, even if it’s only a verbal affirmation of thanks. It’s not so surprising then that materialism has been identified as one of the most significant blocks to gratitude. As noted in a newsletter by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), which maintains a project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude:37
“Seen through the lens of buying and selling, relationships as well as things are viewed as disposable, and gratitude cannot survive this materialistic onslaught … Research has proven that gratitude is essential for happiness, but modern times have regressed gratitude into a mere feeling instead of retaining its historic value, a virtue that leads to action …
[G]ratitude is an action of returning a favor and is not just a sentiment. By the same token, ingratitude is the failure to both acknowledge receiving a favor and refusing to return or repay the favor. Just as gratitude is the queen of the virtues, ingratitude is the king of the vices …
If we fail to choose [gratitude], by default we choose ingratitude. Millions make this choice every day. Why? Provision, whether supernatural or natural, becomes so commonplace that it is easily accepted for granted.”
So, gratitude isn’t a response to receiving “your due,” but rather the recognition that life owes you nothing, yet provided you with everything you have anyway — a place to live, family, friends, work, your eyesight, your breath, indeed your very life.
When you start seeing everything as a gift, opposed to things you’ve deserved (for better or worse), your sense of gratitude will begin to swell. It can also be helpful to remember that materialism, ungratefulness and entitlement are surefire prescriptions for unhappiness, as generosity and happiness are neurally linked.38,39 Put in another way, when you act generously — even if no money is involved — you automatically increase happiness. Act stingy, and happiness declines.
Practical strategies to build and strengthen gratitude
GGSC has a number of resources you can peruse at your leisure, including The Greater Good Magazine40 and Thnx4, a digital gratitude journal41 where you can record and share the things you’re grateful for year-round. There are also many other gratitude journal apps you can download. Positive Routines has rated 11 of the best apps to track your happiness.42
Aside from keeping a daily gratitude journal, there are many other ways to practice gratitude. I’ve compiled suggestions from various experts below. The key is to stay consistent. Find a way to incorporate your chosen method into each week, ideally each day, and stick with it.
Acknowledge “useless” goodness — A way to flex your gratitude muscle when life events leave you uninspired is to identify and express gratitude for seemingly “useless” or insignificant things.
It could be a delightful scent in the air, the color of a flower, your child’s freckles or the curvature of a stone. Over time, you’ll find that doing this will really home your ability to identify good things in your life.
Write thank-you notes43— 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.
Say grace at each meal — Adopting the ritual of saying grace at each meal is a great way to flex your gratitude muscle on a daily basis,44 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.”
Let go of negativity by changing your perception — Disappointment 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,”45 “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.” And, once you can see the good, you’re more apt to feel gratitude.
Be mindful of your nonverbal actions — Smiling and hugging are ways of expressing gratitude, encouragement, excitement, empathy and support. These physical actions also help strengthen your inner experience of positive emotions of all kinds.
Give praise — Research46 shows 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.”
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,47 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 HuffPost article48 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 research,49 spending money on experiences not only generates more gratitude than material consumption, it also motivates greater generosity. As noted by co-author 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.”50
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 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.
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 them in ways that does not involve shopping.
Try tapping — The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a helpful tool for a number of emotional challenges, including lack of gratitude. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure based on the energy meridians used in acupuncture that can quickly restore 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.
Thank you for all your support through the past 22 years!
Gratitude is one of the core aspects for personal success outlined by Arianna Huffington in her book, “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.”51 Indeed, what worth does success (of any kind) have if it’s not accompanied by a sense of gratitude?
As Mercola.com celebrates its 22nd year online, I have much to be grateful for — my staff, of course, and you, my readers, without whom none of what I do would matter. If you were not passionate about improving your health and well-being, there would be no point in any of this work.
Sharing simple, inexpensive strategies that have a powerful effect on health is my passion. The fact that so many of you are taking these recommendations to heart and are implementing them and benefiting from them fills me with gratitude. It’s what makes this journey worthwhile.