The Science of Gratitude
I finish nearly every meditation session I lead in workplaces all over Melbourne in more or less the same way, asking students to bring to mind someone or something for which they are incredibly grateful.
It doesn't matter who or what they’re thankful for—it could be a loved one, or perhaps an opportunity.
“Notice how feeling grateful makes you feel in your body,” I say. “Let yourself bathe in gratitude.
Now, allow yourself to feel a sense of gratitude for this opportunity; for hopefully having experienced a little stillness; and, for how lucky we are to live where we do, in relative safety and security.”
Afterwards, students always express some surprise at how lovely it is to check in with the wonderful things in our lives and how lucky we are to have them. But, apart from the feel-good factor, what does the research tell us about the positive effect of gratitude?
It’s all good
Regularly focusing on and appreciating the goodness in one's life appears to be incredibly beneficial for our physical and psychological well-being. I only say ‘appears to be’ because we must treat all relatively new research findings somewhat carefully.
But, after nearly fifteen years of research, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, says that not only are our physical and psychological selves positively impacted by gratitude practices, our social lives are too.
His research shows that gratitude affects three crucial areas:
• Stronger immune system
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• More inclined to exercise and take better care of health
• Improved sleep and more refreshed upon waking.
• More positive emotions
• More alert and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimistic and happy.
• More helpful, generous and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing
• Less lonely and isolated.
If we had a pill that could do all these things, was free and had no side effects, we’d all be on it!
How to become more grateful
Emmons notes that to really experience the positive effects of gratitude, we may need to put a lot of conscious effort into becoming more grateful. While it’s easy to be influenced by the daily bad-news-bubble and daily life stresses, there are some very easy steps towards gratitude we can all take.
1) Keeping a gratitude journal.
List just five things every week that you’re grateful for. This practice helps you consciously, intentionally focus your attention on developing more grateful thinking, and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts.
2) Counting your blessings regularly.
Perhaps try this first thing in the morning or just before bed in the evening—you don’t have to write these down, just thinking more gratefully is enough.
Also, a wonderful idea to help kids develop more gratitude is to keep a family gratitude jar. Each night at dinner, write one thing you’re grateful for on a piece of paper and pop it in the jar. Then, at the end of the week, you can read them out together, and marvel at all the things you’ve had to be grateful for over just seven days!
If you already have a meditation practice, why not include a little gratitude practice? I have found, and many reports, that mindfulness itself helps develop and increase how grateful we are.
Experiencing gratitude changes everything
For me, I have found since incorporating gratitude into my daily mindfulness meditation and/or yoga practice, I seem to notice the good in my life more easily. Whenever I am having a really hard time, which unfortunately is quite often—I am the sole parent of a little boy with some health problems—my default is to thank my lucky stars that I live where I do.
When he’s feeling really crook and we’re both a little beside ourselves, I think about how grateful I am that we’re not living in a refugee camp or war-torn country.
Finding the silver lining when things are crappy has become a habit. And, when I realise at the moment that gratitude has become my default, I’m grateful for that in itself—yet another dose of appreciation!
In a scientific study called Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration, the authors conclude there is a lot of evidence to show that, “gratitude is related to a wide variety of forms of well-being”. The evidence is interesting when compared to findings on wealth and well-being that show huge increases in income are needed to yield only modest gains in well-being1.
It seems we’d probably all be “better off having an appreciation for what we already have instead of trying to accrue ever more stuff!”2.
After all, a little gratitude goes a long way.
1. Boyce, C., and Wood, A. M. (in press). Money or mental health: The cost of alleviating psychological distress with monetary compensation versus psychological therapy. Health Economics, Policy and Law. doi:10.1017/S1744133109990326.
2. Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111?131.
Wood, A., Froh, J., & Geraghty, A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890-905.
About the author
Susie Hopkins is the Founder of Lilo Wellness and teaches simple, practical strategies that ensure less stress every day. She has a Masters of Public Health, is a Registered Nurse and a qualified yoga and mindfulness teacher. She has taught people how to manage stress for more than 10 years and has worked as a health coach in the corporate sector for many years as well. She is a solo parent her little boy who is 5 and has autism having done IVF on her own.