The resounding answer, according to research, is…YES!
Although, there is also a slightly darker cynical negative side that can present itself, as well. The key is how it attunes with you. Expressing gratitude from a deep place of giving can increase your well-being. You’ll feel lighter, happier and you will be more likely to help others for the greater good. Scientific literature shows that those who feel and express gratitude, regularly and deeply (as opposed to just fleetingly), are less worried and depressed. They will also feel more hopeful and have greater satisfaction with their lives.
According to The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, gratitude is basically a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. Feeling gratitude with emotion can reduce stress, improve physical health, and increase a sense of positivity and connection. It literally calms our nervous system. This is because giving thanks activates our vagus nerve, which is the long nerve that runs down our body and affects major organs such as the heart and gut. Science shows couples who express gratitude for their partner feel more positive and more comfortable with expressing emotions and concerns. Employees work harder for managers who say “thank you”. It just feels good when we can see and appreciate goodness in all forms. When we make someone else smile and lift their spirits, even if it’s just for a brief moment, this increases pleasure and happiness in us, too, because it naturally activates serotonin and dopamine. This activation helps us gain greater awareness of our thoughts and beliefs, and improves our ability to reflect on what is good in our lives. The more we flex our “gratitude muscles,” the more we strengthen our positive neural pathways and neglect unhelpful ones. Sounds great! Right?
So, why don’t we do more of it?
We may be too caught up in our daily lives. Our mind may be filled with distractions and we simply forget. We might be feeling down. Some might feel a gratitude humbug, or think this gratitude stuff is bullocks (as they say in England). Our cynical side may say, “my therapist told me to write down daily gratitudes” and I thought, “Really? My life is falling apart, the world is crashing down around me, and you think writing a list of gratitudes is going to help me?” (Yes, I’ve heard this, and many have thought this). Ok, fair enough. It can be very difficult when we are feeling down to activate anything good or positive, or to feel grateful when we are not feeling it. It may be hard to see and feel the sun’s warmth when our world is under a dark cloud. Let’s face it, the holidays can be hard for some and when people say “Just be grateful for what you have,” you might feel the urge to do an eyeroll (or worse). That doesn’t feel connecting does it? So, here’s the thing, gratitude is most beneficial to all parties (the giver and receiver) when given intentionally, from the heart, and not due to obligation or expectation. We all know the difference between a deep heartfelt “Thank you” and a nonchalant “thanks”. Being told or even telling ourselves that we should be grateful feels icky…Right?
So, the holidays are upon us. The time for family, friends and giving thanks. What are some ways, big and small, that we can step into this season with gratitude even if/when we may not always be feeling it? If we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, can we play with giving thanks, even if it’s just to see how it feels (as us therapists like to say)? Observe how it can fill us with happiness when we do.
Here are some ways to activate our gratitude muscle, starting with a few small acts and ending with some bigger ones.
Small: These are easy and don’t require much but intention and they cost nothing!
Look the person who has offered or given you something (friend, coffee server, co-worker) in the eyes and say “thank you” with a smile. Maybe even try saying “thank you for what you do.” Notice the difference when you do this versus just “thanks”.
Stop to take a moment, close your eyes, think of someone you love, and say thank you for...
Look around you, wherever you are, notice something good (a mother holding her child’s hand, the bright red leaf on the tree, the smell of honeysuckle, the sound of your child’s laughter), use your senses to feel this goodness and express appreciation inside. It’s the small and powerful art of noticing and appreciating. Actively SEEK it out on the daily.
Close your eyes, put your hand over your heart and feel gratitude. First acknowledge the goodness in one’s life. With gratitude, say YES! to life. Affirm that, all in all, life is good and has elements that make it worth living. Acknowledge that we have received something gratifying.
Recognize that much of this goodness lies outside the self. Here we express gratitude for the source of our creation and guidance, other people, animals, nature, and the world. Here, we recognize the goodness in our lives and who to thank for it.
A little bigger: These are more action oriented.
Create a gratitude practice by journaling about 3 things that you are deeply grateful for or what you may have seen that day. When you write it…think about it. Revisit the moment and savor it. Offer thanks.
Make a plate of cookies for a neighbor or a meal for someone who is sick.
Pay it forward. Buy the person behind you their cup of coffee.
Take a walk in nature. Nature alone can heal and soothe the nervous system. Take time to observe its gifts and give thanks for all the earth has to offer.
Write a thank you note to someone that provided kindness or did something you appreciated, small or big, even if it was years ago.
Visit the person and read the letter out loud to them. Studies show that this is even more impactful than sending the letter. Why? Because it is connecting…with all of the senses.
Meditation and yoga help calm the nervous system and open the mind and body to receive. If you are interested, MBTC has several classes that may help you on this journey.
Watch Stutz. It’s on Netflix. It’s a documentary about Jonah Hill’s psychiatrist and has some great tools…one notably called The Grateful Flow. While not directly a gratitude gift, it gives ideas on how to cultivate it.
With this, I leave you with this mantra that helps me on the daily. It is done with sun salutation or hand over heart. It just makes me feel good. Maybe it will do this for you too!
“Guide me to step into my best self today. Be present to the joy and beauty in my life. May I live, think, speak and act in a way that uplifts and inspires all who cross my path and beyond. Thank you.”
Thank you all for being open. With peace and gratitude, the MTBC team hopes you have the most loving holiday season.