As we put the year 2020 behind us (thankfully!), now is the perfect time to set an intention for the new year. I know that many women are thinking of things like weight loss or exercise as goals for the new year, but there’s one thing that can positively impact your health and make both of those goals easier: gratitude.
I’ve mentioned the health benefits of gratitude before, but this year people may be struggling to find things to be thankful for – especially if the year has brought job loss, ill health, or the loss of a loved one.
I know it can be difficult when it feels like the world around you is falling apart, but stopping to appreciate all of the things you still have – even little things – can make a big difference.
There’s been quite a bit of research around what gratitude can do to help relieve stress (and therefore boost health) and improve your mood. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence, then I’ll give you three easy ways to begin a practice of gratitude that can help keep you happy and healthy in the new year!
Gratitude and Stress Relief
Stress is constant – especially in COVID times! In recent years, chronic stress has been on the rise in general, but this year really pushed a lot of people to the brink. Chronic stress takes such a toll on the body and your health, both physical and mental. So anything that can relieve stress – even in small ways – is welcome.
Research is demonstrating how gratitude can help people cope with and recover from trauma, whether recent or in your distant past. This research primarily focuses on the correlation between gratitude as a personality trait and psychological outcomes of serious trauma.
Research is also beginning to find that those who possess “trait gratitude” more often experience positive growth out of traumatic incidents, rather than negative psychological impacts such as PTSD.
Researchers are beginning to see gratitude as a “protective factor” (as opposed to a risk factor) against PTSD. The American Psychological Association says that protective factors are linked to less likelihood of specific diagnoses, better mental health, and fewer negative impacts related to stress. Think of gratitude as exercise for emotional health!
Though exactly how gratitude helps you better handle stress isn’t clear, biologically, there’s been some relatively recent research that’s beginning to explore the issue. Theoretically, the correlation centers around positive psychology, an area of study focused on promoting well being and helping people thrive.
The “broaden-and-build” theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson says that experiencing and cultivating positive emotions, like gratitude, can lead to better well-being long term as we develop a broader perspective and find resources that help us become more resilient.
Focusing on gratitude also allows you to stop dwelling on the negative stress happening in your life, shifting your attention to more positive feelings and calming the body’s stress response.
Gratitude and mood
Studies have also shown a correlation between gratitude (both as a trait and a practice) and better mood outcomes.
Much of this research centers around surveys and scales that measure gratitude as a trait, with a strong correlation between those who see the world in a positive way and less stress and greater happiness. There’s also some solid research around how the practice of gratitude benefits mood.
In a 2010 meta-review it was determined that those with higher levels of trait gratitude had lower incidence of depression, better overall well-being, and better social support systems.
A series of meta-analyses published in 2017 examined 38 studies focused on gratitude interventions comparing a group practicing gratitude with control groups. They consistently found that there were clear differences in self-reported measures of mental health and well-being in those who practiced gratitude.
These measures included happiness, positive affect, satisfaction with life, depression, and quality of relationships, among others.
Although again, we don’t necessarily know why gratitude impacts mood in positive ways, I’d argue that we don’t really need to. Simply understanding that gratitude can make you feel better is enough reason to begin your own practice! Let’s take a quick look at how you can get started.
3 Simple Steps to Beginning a Gratitude Practice
With compelling research to suggest that gratitude is a natural, effective way to relieve stress and boost mood, I believe it’s one of the easiest ways to begin managing your health. In 2015, the first study to explore what happens in the brain when we express gratitude was published, through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging.
This study found that the parts of the brain that correlate with moral cognition, social reward, interpersonal relationships and emotional perception are all activated when expressing gratitude.
Since our brain plays such a major role in both mental and physical health, it’s encouraging to hear that there are clear correlations between the practice of gratitude and specific regions of the brain that can help keep us connected to others – especially since social relationships are so important to positive mood.
Here are three ways to begin a practice of gratitude. Remember, you don’t have to devote hours a day to this practice; even just a few minutes makes a difference!
I’ve found that gratitude is like love – the more you give, the more it grows. Though you’ll need to be intentional about the practice at first, I’m willing to bet that once you’ve been practicing for a while, you’ll notice the little things more easily, and thanks will come more automatically.
In the meantime, set aside a few minutes dedicated to gratitude each day.
1. Think about it
That’s right – you can begin simply with thoughts.
Take advantage of time you have in the day – maybe waiting in traffic or standing in line – to pause and think about some of the amazing things in your life. Give thanks for having a car to get around in, for the ability to purchase what you need, or for the amazing sunset you see on your evening commute.
Make a conscious effort, when you find yourself heading down a path of negativity, to stop and think about just one thing you have to be grateful for.
2. Write it down
Gratitude journals have become quite popular in recent years – with good reason. Writing something down solidifies it in your mind. There’s no wrong way to do this.
I have one friend who writes a stream of consciousness piece on Facebook almost every day, letting the world know what she’s thankful for, always ending with “Life is Good.” That kind of public declaration may seem daunting to you, but it works for her.
Writing a bullet list of items you’re grateful for, or journaling in whatever way you like, can accomplish the same thing. Writing letters, email, or text to express thanks to people in your life is also a great way to practice gratitude (with the added bonus of sharing the good feelings with someone else).
3. Say it aloud
Yes, talking to yourself is okay, even desirable!
Positive affirmations and verbal expressions of gratitude, whether expressed in private or to others, are a great way to remind yourself of the good things in your life.
Saying thank you or sharing the impact someone has on your life gets easier the more you practice. Start small, with a simple thank you, and work your way up to letting others know exactly how they make your life better.
No matter how you choose to practice gratitude, the benefits you’ll reap will make you want to do it more and more! Heading into the new year is a perfect time to begin. Here’s to a year filled with less stress, happier times, and a wealth of things to be grateful for!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD