In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of being grateful given that it is November and Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of this month in the United States. We don’t have a dedicated day to count our blessings in Australia, which is unfortunate, because I firmly believe in the benefits of feeling gratitude. Being thankful basically shifts your focus from what you are lacking to what you have. Instead of spending time lamenting your losses, you focus on the good fortune you have experienced. Many psychologists argue that thankfulness is more important to improving mental health than feeling optimism. A sense of gratitude automatically improves your mindset, but being thankful has also been shown to be good for your health.
Being thankful improves heart health
Scientific trials have found that regularly feeling gratitude can lower blood pressure, strengthen your immune system and improve your sleep. A study from the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine found that people who were grateful had healthier hearts, less coronary inflammation and more regular heart rhythms. Researchers at the universities of Utah and Kentucky found that law students who described themselves as optimistic had more disease-fighting cells. Positive emotions have frequently been shown to improve the immune system. When people think about what they are grateful for, the calming part of the nervous system is triggered. This decreases the stress hormone, cortisol, and increases oxytocin, a hormone which make us feel good. Overall stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people. A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that people who show gratitude have fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than others. Grateful people are also more likely to care for their health and exercise more often. They also have regular check-ups.
Grateful people eat less fat
Yet another study found that people who wrote in a gratitude journal daily had less fat in their diet — around 25 percent less. This finding really made sense to me. In the past I have joked that if you want to lose weight put a do-not-disturb sign on the fridge, but I know that often people over-eat because they are trying to fill an emotional void. Often these people have had difficult childhoods and have never been properly loved. They feel a profound sense of emptiness and try to fill it with food, but instead end up over-weight and with bad health. If emotional eaters instead try to fill their emotional cavities, they will be less likely to fill their body with food. It has been shown that a sense of gratitude can help people cope with stress and trauma. Feeling gratitude, even during hard times, can help you adjust, and move forward. A 2006 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that Vietnam Veterans with high levels of gratitude suffered lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Recognising what you have to be thankful for during bad times enhances resilience.
A sense of appreciation also reduces the risk of depression
A sense of appreciation can reduce the risk of developing depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Some people are naturally grateful or thankful for their blessings, but all of us can learn to feel gratitude. To be truly thankful, you need to be aware of your boons. It is fine to make a list, and set aside time every day to meditate or give thanks to God for all that is good. By feeling appreciation we are acknowledging things like our health, relationships, family and our homes, but do not forget the small stuff - the birds that welcome the morning outside your bedroom window every day and even the neighbour who brings in your rubbish bin.
You might even want to develop a system to record your gratitude. You can start a daily diary, post on social media, or put sticky notes on a mirror noting your godsends. Writing stuff down helps many people clarify their thoughts.
Show gratitude in relationships
Remember also that showing gratitude to others improves relationships. When was the last time you thanked your spouse for cooking a great dinner? When did you last email a friend and say thanks for being there for me? When did you last send your mother flowers and say thanks for putting up with me? A 2104 study published in Emotion proved that gratitude helps you make new friends. The study found that thanking an acquaintance makes that person more likely to seek an ongoing relationship with you. So whether you thank a stranger for picking up an item you dropped or you send a quick email to a colleague who helped you with a project, acknowledging other people’s input can lead to new friendships.
Focus on what is holding you together, not what is tearing you apart
A focus on gratitude definitely helps you shift your life perspective. You are no longer hung up about what is missing from your existence. It is too easy to look at successful people and feel resentful because their lives have been easier than yours. Perhaps they went to the best schools and had wealthy parents. They never had to struggle, but you know what it is like to have the odds stacked against you! I say be grateful also for the tough times, because that is what shapes you. I like what CS Lewis said, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for extraordinary destinies” while Albert Einstein said, “adversity introduces a man to himself.” You only get to know who you are when you are challenged.
Remember at the end of the day you have a choice – you can focus on what is tearing you apart or gives thanks for what is holding you together.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.