Is Gratitude The Key To A Healthier, Longer & Happier Life?
As children we are all taught the importance of gratitude and are encouraged to regularly express that gratitude through acknowledging phrases, warm acts of courtesy or through silent credit given to a power above. In certain instances, expressing gratitude comes with ease, particularly when we find ourselves as the recipient of good fortune or a kind deed. But what about when it isn't so directly triggered?
Should we not be grateful for every experience in life? Even those that were incredibly difficult or challenging, did they not offer us the opportunity to grow and learn as an individual or collective? Isn't the fact that you are alive right now in this moment, reading this article, something to be grateful for?
“True forgiveness is when you can say, thank you for that experience.” - Oprah Winfrey
I think it is, and some studies have shown that gratitude, when genuinely felt and practised, can actually have several measurable positive effects on multiple body and brain systems. Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center, outlined in an ABC News piece (1) that gratitude has been shown to impact:
Social Bonding Hormones
Cognitive & Pleasure Related Neurotransmitters
Inflammatory & Immune Systems
Cardiac & EEG Rhythms
"If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system." - Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy
Gratitude impacts these bodily functions primarily through the release of dopamine, the brain's primary reward chemical. Dopamine has a positive effect on mood and one's emotional well-being. (1) By making gratitude a more regular part of our life we train ourselves to focus more on the positive rather than the negative, allowing more dopamine to be produced, ultimately giving the body more of this chemical to work with.
Study #1 - A Few Focused Sentences
In one particular study, participants were split into three groups all tasked with writing a few sentences each week. Group 1 was told to focus their weekly write-up on things that occurred during the week which they were thankful for. Group 2 was told to focus on irritations or things that upset them. Group 3, the control group, were told to write about occurrences that merely affected them with no preference to those occurrences being positive or negative.
The study conducted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami concluded that after 10 weeks those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. (2)
Study #2 - A Letter of Gratitude
A second study conducted on 411 participants by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, involved a controlled assignment based on memory. One of the assignments within the study involved writing a letter of gratitude to someone that the participant felt they never had an opportunity to properly thank. Happiness scores shot through the roof upon completing this task, and exhibited a lasting impact on the psyche of the subjects involved. (2)
The Limitations To Studying This Correlation
Studies of this nature are of course not as concretely capable of determining a set cause and effect as one might come to expect of a scientific experiment, but the results are still interesting. Whether or not you choose to believe them as credible is completely up to you to determine, but it's certainly hard to deny at least some level of correlation between gratitude and one's overall well-being.
Think back upon instances in your own life. Have you not found that at least at times both positive and negative occurrences tend to snowball into one another and come in bunches?
Ways To Become More Grateful
So how exactly does one go about becoming more genuinely grateful? I personally have helped to make gratitude a more regular part of my day through both meditation and journaling. Meditation I find to be particularly helpful in allowing me to see the bigger picture of challenging situations by calming me down and allowing me to look at life from a more peaceful state. In the heat of the moment things may appear overwhelming, and often times they genuinely are, but I've found that when I take a step back -even if it's several hours, days or weeks later -I can see why it needed to happen and can work towards being grateful for that.
Now I may not personally commit to a daily journal entry on gratitude, but I do my best to give myself an opportunity to write, without judgement, as often as possible. Whether intentional or not, the regular end result of my writing sessions is a number of things that are either currently bothering or making me happy. Putting these down on paper I find helps me to break them down for what they are, ultimately moving me towards a state where I am more grateful for all things in life, rather than being consistently up or down as my mind seems to always want to take me.
(1) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/science-thankfulness/story?id=15008148 (2) http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/harvard_mental_health_letter/2011/november/in-praise-of-gratitude