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Gratitude — The Hidden Key to Health and Happiness

An ever-growing body of research confirms that gratitude has a number of potent health benefits. As noted by Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,1 an expert in brain and mind health:2 "If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system." Gratitude actually alters your brain in a number of beneficial ways, and helps:3

  1. Improve physical health by having a general pain-lowering effect, lowering inflammation and blood sugar, improving immune function,4 blood pressure and heart health5 and encouraging general self-care
  2. Increase happiness and life satisfaction by lowering stress and emotional distress
  3. Improve emotional resiliency, which also helps combat stress and anxiety
  4. Improve mental health by triggering the release of antidepressant and mood-regulating chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin, while inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol
  5. Improve sleep,6 which can have far-reaching benefits for physical and mental health

Research has also demonstrated that gratitude is the single best predictor of good relationships. Indeed, long before modern scientists confirmed these benefits, the philosophers of old espoused gratitude as the way to sanity, good health and life satisfaction.

Defining Gratitude

I recently finished reading “The Little Book of Gratitude,” by Robert Emmons. It’s a great book that I highly recommend if you need some inspiration. In it, he states, “We did not create or fashion ourselves, and we did not get to where we are in life by ourselves. So, living in gratitude is living in truth. It is the most accurate and honest approach to life.”

According to Emmons, gratitude involves “affirming the good and recognizing its sources. It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift, accompanied by an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted.”

Generosity and Happiness Are Neurally Linked

Interestingly, generosity has also been linked to happiness, which may seem counterintuitive since giving to others means sacrificing some of your own physical or emotional resources. Still, many decide to do it anyway — perhaps because they anticipate the feel-good afterglow.7 This experience has now been validated by science showing that generosity and happiness are actually wired together in your brain. As explained by the researchers:8

“We hypothesized that participants who had committed to spending their endowment on others would behave more generously in the decision-making task as well as self-report greater increases in happiness as compared to the control group. Importantly, we predicted that the neural link between generosity and happiness would involve functional interactions between brain regions engaged in generous behavior (TPJ) and those mediating happiness (ventral striatum).

The results confirmed our hypotheses. We found significantly higher levels of generous behavior and happiness, as reflected by greater TPJ activity for generous choices and generosity-related connectivity of the TPJ with striatal happiness regions in the experimental group. We thus conclude that the interplay of these brain regions links commitment-induced generosity with happiness.”

Unfortunately, many underestimate the link between generosity and happiness, and in fact assume the opposite — that they will be happier after spending money on themselves than others, for example.9 Now that you know otherwise, you can put this pearl of wisdom to good use. As study author, professor Phillipe Tobler, from the department of economics at the University of Zurich, said in a news release, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.”10

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