Thanksgiving is our nation’s official time for giving thanks, counting our blessings, and sharing kindness and courtesy to friends, family and even strangers. The spirit of gratitude, defined as “the quality of being thankful, or readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” is a trait that should be cultivated each and every day to improve the health and happiness of you and those around you.
Gratitude is an attitude of empathy, an emotion or feeling of virtue that involves the recognition and appreciation of something or somebody. This sense of goodwill often leads to a desire to think and act positively. Research shows that gratitude can be cultivated to improve our psychological, physical and social health.
In their 2003 study, “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life,” authors Emmons and McCullough had two groups of college students keep daily journals, one group tracking things they were grateful for, and the other keeping a log of things they found annoying or irritating.
The study groups kept records of both positive and negative affects experienced as well as how they coped, their resultant behaviors, physical symptoms, and their overall satisfaction with life. Not surprisingly, the study showed the group tracking gratitude had much higher markers of personal well-being, as well as social and physical benefits. Numerous subsequent studies on gratitude have shown similar outcomes.
The unique benefits of gratitude have been shown to lead to more happiness and satisfaction with life, more sense of feeling loved, and lower feelings of stress or depression. Another important result of increased gratitude is optimism, a brighter outlook for the future and progress toward reaching goals.
It seems that gratitude won’t share the stage with negative emotions such as envy, anger or bitterness and the ongoing practice of gratitude serves as a coping mechanism for dealing with adverse situations, as well as a psychological tool for countering depression.
Gratitude benefits extend to physical well-being, with studies showing that grateful people have better health behaviors such as eating right and exercising more. Physical benefits include more energy, better mental focus, more restful sleep and less tendency for illness and symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.
Optimism and psychological happiness, both strongly stemming from a sense of gratitude, have been shown to improve health aspects such as healing faster after surgery, surviving significant illness, and lowering the risk of heart disease and mortality from all causes.
“Paying it forward” could be used to describe the pro-social benefits of gratitude. Bestowing appreciation for someone is shown to start a behavioral ripple effect leading to further acts of kindness and gratitude. The social aspects of gratitude are even shown to help build new relationships.
Author of “Gratitude and Justice,” Patrick Fitzgerald, suggests that the first component of gratitude is the deep sense of appreciation that requires a sincere reflection on what it is that we are grateful for, to reflect on what it means to us, and to recognize the source.
For some people, gratitude comes easily, and for others it may take a little more direction.
A simple way to start the process of cultivating gratitude is to reflect each and every day, perhaps even writing in a journal, on just a few things that we are grateful for. It need not be complex or grandiose, for the simplest of things may promote the most gratitude. Examples might include being grateful for the fresh air, a sunset, a chance to take a walk, a good night’s rest, a helpful co-worker, a kind boss, or a friendly neighbor.
According to Fitzgerald, the next step in the gratitude process is showing gratitude toward another person or thing with a sense of goodwill and by acting positively due to that appreciation. This may be something as simple as sending a thank you note that details your sense of gratitude for another person. It could be speaking words of gratitude to a friend, child or spouse, pointing out specifically what it is about them you are grateful for.
In business and social networks, gratitude can be shown by taking time to point out how much you enjoy working with a co-worker, or offering to assist them because you appreciate their efforts. Recognizing employee input and effort at regular staff meetings or making time for a luncheon with a colleague, and pointing out what it is about them you are grateful for, is another way to share your gratitude and grow social harmony.
As you gather for the holidays with friends, family, neighbors or co-workers, focus on the blessings and the people for which you are grateful. Speak of these blessings, and to those you are thankful for, telling them in specific terms what it is that makes them special. Then keep that spirit alive all year long by spreading gratitude, knowing it leads to better health of the mind, body and spirit for you and those around you. By the way, I’m grateful for you, dear reader, for taking the time to read my column. Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.