November 22, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., is an annual reminder to slow down, take stock and express thanks. Ideally, though, this practice — sans the extravagant multicourse meal — would be a daily one, as the emotion of gratitude has actually been scientifically confirmed to impart some pretty extraordinary health benefits.
While the word "gratitude" can be interpreted in a number of ways depending on context,1 the clinical definition of gratitude is "The appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation."2
In short, it's thankful appreciation for what you have received and/or everything you already have, whether it be tangible or intangible. It's a recognition of the good in life.
The Many Benefits of Gratitude
Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,3 an expert in brain and mind health, once said,4 "If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system." Indeed, the fields of psychiatry and primary care are turning out to be tightly intertwined and overlapping,5 as studies have linked the practice of gratitude to:
- Reduced stress and emotional distress, in part by improving emotional resiliency6
- Improved sleep7
- Better heart health,8 reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
- Measurable beneficial effects on the mood neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, inflammatory cytokines, immune function,9 blood pressure, blood sugar, testosterone (sex hormone), oxytocin (social bonding hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone)
- Improved self-care, such as getting exercise, eating well and getting regular health checkups,10 leading to fewer health complaints and doctor visits11
- Intimate relationships, generating a greater sense of connectedness and satisfaction as a couple16
- Patience, willpower and impulse control, all of which allow you to make better decisions17,18
- Mental health, significantly improving symptoms of depression19 and anxiety, increasing joy, sustained happiness, overall life satisfaction and general sense of well-being20 and pleasure21
- Ability to overcome the negative effects of materialism and reduce materialistic strivings, which is a well-recognized source of unhappiness and frustration22
- Improved work performance (in one study, managers who expressed gratitude saw a 50 percent increase in the employees' performance)
Studies23 have also demonstrated that gratitude exercises such as writing down what you're grateful for and paying-it-forward results in neural changes that create a positive feedback loop, increasing your ability to experience gratitude in the future. In other words, your sense of gratitude is strengthened through the feeling and doing of it.
Gratitude Increases Joy and Builds Sustained Happiness
According to the Harris Poll Happiness Index, only 1 in 3 Americans reports being "very happy." More than half say they're frustrated at or by work.24 Other research suggests nearly 1 in 4 experiences no life enjoyment at all.25
The good news is, small changes in perspective and/or behavior can add up, and practicing gratitude may be at the top of the list of strategies known to boost feelings of joy, ultimately leading to sustained, long-term happiness and life satisfaction. Gratitude is also neutrally linked with generosity,26,27 and as you'd suspect, generosity has been shown to augment happiness as well.
If you're among those who could use a happiness boost, consider cultivating an attitude of gratitude — every day. A simple and proven way of doing this is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you document the things you're grateful for.
In one study,28 participants who kept a gratitude diary and reflected on what they were grateful for just four times a week for three weeks improved their depression, stress and happiness scores. A few tips to consider as you journal:
- Focus on the benevolence of other people. Doing so will increase your sense of being supported by life and decrease unnecessary anxiety
- Focus on what you have received rather than what's been withheld
- Avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages. Doing so will only erode your sense of security