By Linda Baker, MS, LPC, ATR-BC
Did you know that the practice of gratitude can have a major impact on both your emotional and physical health?
From improving blood pressure to decreasing depression, regularly practicing gratitude can be a life-changing experience.
But what does it really mean to be grateful? How does someone practice gratitude?
Here is your brief guide to gratitude and how you can incorporate a gratitude practice into your daily life.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is an intrinsic, powerful, and fundamental component of the human experience.
Researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, pioneers in the study of gratitude, describe gratitude as recognizing that you have obtained a positive outcome and realizing there is an external source for this positive outcome, such as a person, God, fate, or nature.
It can be further defined as a warm, sincere, emotional response of appreciation toward the world or specific individuals or groups.
Gratitude can be the simple acknowledgment of a bestowal or good deed or, in addition, the act of showing appreciation and returning kindness.
How does gratitude affect the brain?
When gratitude is expressed or received, the brain releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for your emotions. These “chemical messengers” contribute to feelings of pleasure, happiness, and overall well-being.
Practicing gratitude encourages you to be aware of your automatic thoughts and core beliefs, challenge those that are negative, and purposely reflect on what’s good and valuable.
Studies have shown that beginning a gratitude practice initiates the development of new neural pathways in the brain. Repetitive practice strengthens the positive pathway, and cyclically leads to an increased use of that pathway.
Over time, this can lead to a shift in your overall baseline temperament and increase feelings of happiness and well-being.
What are the benefits of practicing gratitude?
Gratitude as a daily practice has been shown to have numerous emotional and physical benefits, including:
- Reducing stress.
- Increasing optimism and hope, and decreasing depression.
- Enhancing academic focus.
- Protecting against burnout.
- Boosting self-esteem.
- Improving sleep.
- Improving blood pressure, glucose control, and asthma control.
- Reducing cellular inflammation.
- Increasing time spent exercising.
In addition, practicing gratitude helps build and enhance relationships and fosters a sense of connectedness to others. Studies have shown that strong relationships and social connections can lead to a healthier and longer life.
How can you practice gratitude?
First, start with mindfulness, as mindful awareness can assist in cultivating gratitude.
Mindfulness is a state of maintaining moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with a gentle and non-judgmental attitude.
Once you tune in to your thoughts and senses, you can begin identifying things for which you are grateful. Start by simply completing the following sentence every day:
- I am grateful for [blank] because [blank] and it makes me feel [blank].
Another exercise to get you started is to take a moment to sit quietly and think about your past week. What you are grateful for? Engage your senses and list something you’ve seen,
eaten or tasted, heard, done, or smelled.
Rather than writing, try drawing your answers every now and then, which can help express your thoughts and feelings in a different way. Display your drawing where you can see it, such as on the refrigerator, so it can serve as reminder of your gratitude.
Walking outside alone or with a friend and appreciating nature can also help improve your
perspective on life. If walking with a friend, be sure to stay focused on the positive and reframe negative thoughts.
For instance, instead of saying, “What a rotten day at work. I’m so stressed and hate my job.”
Reframe the thought to, “I had a difficult day at work, but I’m grateful to have a job that helps support me financially.”
How can you take your gratitude practice to the next level?
Action can be an important component of gratitude and give you a sense of purpose. Having a purpose makes you feel good, needed, and relevant.
This could include acts of kindness such as:
- Helping a neighbor with yard work.
- Bringing a meal to someone who is sick.
- Baking cookies to cheer up a friend.
And remember to say, “thank you.”
It’s also important to keep your eyes open throughout the day for reasons to say, “thank you.” Make a conscious effort to notice when people do good things whether for you or others. Tell the person you recognize their good deed and thank them.
To take it a step further, try writing a letter to someone describing how thankful you are for
something they did. Explain how it made you feel and how grateful you are.
At Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, gratitude is incorporated into evidence-based treatment programs that help adults, children, and teens address behavioral health issues, develop coping skills, and regain quality of life.
Princeton House outpatient programs are intensive — ranging from nine to 30 hours per week — are group-based, and available in person or via telehealth.
For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, call 888-437.1610 or visit www.princetonhouse.org.
Linda Baker, MS, LPC, ATR-BC is a board-certified registered art therapist and senior allied clinical therapist with Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.