The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context. In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
Research has shown that being grateful and showing appreciation positively affects your health and happiness. In fact, I am a huge proponent of our having a “gratitude day” at least once a week in our everyday lives! Or even better, practice a bit of gratitude each day! It is that important.
Not only does acknowledging the goodness in your life make you happier, but it helps improve your health. It improves your immunity, heart health, digestion, sleep quality, and so much more. Additionally, it may help you deal more effectively with adversity. Gratitude will likely strengthen your relationships. The increased well-being you feel will radiate outward to others as well.
The positive health effects of gratitude and appreciation
Studies show that gratitude and appreciation induce many changes throughout your body. I’ll talk about just a few of these, the first being how feeling thankful actually helps improve your digestion.
Gratitude improves digestion
Practicing gratitude helps get your parasympathetic nervous system back in control.
Remember that when you are stressed your sympathetic nervous system takes over and prepares you to fight or escape the tiger! Your digestion shuts down during this time.
That is how many of us live – in a state of chronic stress, always prepared for the tiger to spring. Thus, the reason why all of the stomach and digestion problems so many of us experience.
However, when you take a moment to reflect on the positives in your life, your parasympathetic nervous system will actually kick back in. No more tiger attack.
Practicing gratitude puts your parasympathetic nervous system back in the driver’s seat and will improve your digestion. It will increase the blood flow to your digestive organs, enabling your body to absorb more nutrients. Your saliva, digestive enzymes, and stomach lining mucus will flow freely, helping your body break down the food you eat. The muscle contractions you need for efficient digestion will act properly.
Gratitude improves heart-rate variability
Studies have also shown that people experience greater heart-rate variability when they practice thankfulness and appreciation. Why is this important? Heart-rate variability is the change in time intervals between adjacent heartbeats. You actually want variability in this measure, as variability translates to improved overall health.
Research has concluded that “too little variation indicates age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology, or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems.”
Gratitude improves your immunity
There have been many interesting studies linking gratitude with improved immune function. People who are grateful tend to be more optimistic, which in turn results in greater immune health. This is measured by things such as a higher numbers of blood cells, or improved health outcomes after surgeries.
Most of you know I am a certified HeartMath® coach. One of the things that their multiple studies have shown is that appreciation induces a change in your heart rhythms that synchronize your heart and brain. As this happens, there is a release of bio-chemicals that enhance your immune system and trigger regenerative hormone changes.
In one study, for example, they measured an immune marker in individuals before and after their experiencing either care/appreciation or anger/frustration. Positive emotions produced a significant increase in the immune marker.
Gratitude improves your mood and gives you an energy boost
Your hormones come into greater balance when you are expressing gratitude. You also become more resilient to aging and fatigue. Your mood is improved, and you get more energy. Research has also shown you may experience improved quality of sleep, which in turn also supports your overall health and feeling of well-being.
How do you incorporate more gratitude into your life? (hint: practice!)
Many of us need to have some reminders and tools to get out of the negative internally focused mode we may live in. So here are some suggestions to help you get into a more positive externally focused mode…and remember, practice will turn things into habit over time.
Maintain a gratitude journal
Every day of your life there are things to be grateful for. But if you truly feel you have nothing to be appreciative of, you may need to start with some simple basics. Be thankful for fresh air, or the flowers growing wild on the hillside. Be thankful for indoor electricity and plumbing! Be thankful for your job. You may not be very happy with your job, but re-frame that into the fact that your income allows you to do things you like to do, maybe traveling or some hobby.
Being thankful is about being mindful, so you do need to focus on it. I maintain a gratitude journal myself, and find it is really helpful to write things down. It makes you focus and reflect on the process as well as what you are writing down!
So for just a few minutes each day, jot down your thoughts. You will find that many of the things you appreciate are external to you. The benefit of this external view? As you look outward you will be connecting with people, pets, nature, activities, and other things that are positives in your life.
Maintain a gratitude bowl
I love this idea. Every day write down something you are grateful for on a slip of paper. Pretend it's a fortune in a fortune cookie, and drop it in a gratitude bowl. Then, on those days where negativity rears its head and you are feeling frustrated and empty, dip into the bowl to be reminded of all the good in your life.
Write a thank you note
The worst thing about email and all of our electronics is that it is just way too easy to thank people for things without really feeling appreciation. It has become more of a checklist activity. I’ve even heard of people receiving thank you’s for wedding gifts via email. You can almost picture the new bride sending out 20 thank you’s in a few minutes with a cut and paste! There's no real chance for reflection or appreciation, just ticking off a “to do” list. I remember when I was married, I hand-wrote every thank you. I reflected on who gave us the gift, and thanked them with a personal note acknowledging their gift and their attendance at our wedding, or the role they may have played in our lives. Do you see the difference?
Writing a thank you note doesn’t need to be about having received a physical gift. What about thanking someone just for their being in your life.
Meditate and reflect
Mindfulness meditation is a great way to thank those in your life, even if you do it in your mind rather than to them personally.
I often thank people who I am no longer in touch with or have passed away. this can be teachers, mentors, and ancestors.
Who introduced you to your current favorite hobby or passion? Do you remember the passenger on a flight who helped you with your child?
You may not be able to thank them now in person, but you can thank them in your mind.
Get your children to practice gratitude! Make it a family affair!
One of the best things you can do for your entire family – and especially your children – is to teach them the art of gratitude and appreciation. Tell them how much you are grateful for them and the things they do. Encourage them to show appreciation to others and to approach life positively and externally focused. Eat dinner together and use a few minutes prior to the meal to either say a prayer, mediate and give thanks, or practice some other way to count your family’s blessings.
Teach your children to wake up each day with kind thoughts towards others and an appreciation for their life.