Thanksgiving is a time when many of us will be reflecting on how much we have to be thankful for in our lives. But feeling grateful shouldn’t just be limited to Thanksgiving; there’s plenty of evidence to show why we should be practicing gratitude all year round.
One of the leading investigators in the field is Robert Emmons, known as the “Guru of Gratitude.” As the director of a long-term scientific research project on gratitude at University of California, Davis, he’s found that practicing gratitude has positive effects on physical health, psychological well-being and relationships.
Gratitude has two components, Emmons says. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness in our lives as a whole. Second, being grateful pushes us to figure out where that goodness comes from—acknowledging that it originates from outside of ourselves. True gratitude, he says, gives us a humble dependence on other people and/or a higher power; it’s the outward focus on others that’s important.
In several studies involving over 1,000 participants from age eight to 80, Emmons’ research found that people who cultivate an attitude of gratitude through keeping a consistent “gratitude journal” report a long list of benefits, including the following:
-Stronger immune systems; less bothered by aches and pains
-Lower blood pressure
-Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
-Higher levels of positive emotions
-More alert, alive, and awake
-More optimism and happiness
-More helpful, generous, and compassionate
-Feel less lonely and isolated.
In an unrelated study, even those who listed and examined three “good things” for a week reaped rewards. The study found that participants who named three blessings they had received in the last 48 hours—detailing how each of those good things made them feel thankful—were significantly happier than those in a placebo group. A third group that listed their three good things without describing their gratitude did not become happier—suggesting that a “grateful processing” of the list was critical to increased happiness.
There’s good news for seniors, too. Gratitude increases with age, says Emmons. Neuroscientists believe that as we age, the amygdala—the area of the brain that regulates emotion and memory—become less active when negative thoughts are received. However, older people continue to maintain their reactions to positive information.
Easy ways to cultivate gratitude:
1) Keep a gratitude journal: Make it a habit to pick three things you’re grateful for every day; write them down and briefly describe why they make you happy.
2) Write a thank-you note: It’s almost a lost art, but a thank-you letter telling someone why they have made a positive impact on your life will make you happy and nurture your relationship with that person.
3) Pray or meditate: Prayer is a time-honoured way to practice gratitude; mindful meditation allows you to focus on one thing you’re grateful for in the moment, such as the warmth of the sun.