In a season where we are reminded to give thanks, I wonder how different it would be if we strived for gratitude.  PositivePsychology.com shares a quote from Emmons & Crumpler that states gratitude “has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more. Minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act.”  Gratitude is more complex than thankfulness as it goes beyond just saying “thank you”.  Gratitude is an internal experience and emotion that has biological purpose.  Research has shown incredible benefits of gratitude on stress levels, relationships, mental health and overall wellness.

The age old question is whether happy people are grateful or if grateful people are happy.  I frequently pose this question when facilitating treatment groups and most people agree that grateful people are happy, explaining that gratitude can cultivate happiness, regardless of ones circumstances.  Some of the most grateful people I have met were overcoming the difficulties of addiction, homelessness, mental health concerns, custody battles or grieving the loss of a loved one.  Gratitude can keep us humble, grounded and hopeful, allowing us to seize the day.  I have been reminded time and time again that our level of gratitude is not based on what we have or our successes, but on our attitude.

The benefits of gratitude is not a new concept.  Its effects have been studied for ages, and was considered a key virtue by ancient philosophers.  Now days, we are aware that when we express gratitude our brain releases dopamine, which is known as the “feel-good chemical.”  It’s functions include motivation, attention, reward, pleasure and boldly movements.  People that have healthy amounts of dopamine are more likely to have healthy relationships, spread positivity and have better mental health.  Gratitude is also known to increases serotonin, which regulates mood, plays a role in memory and cognition and controls the sleep-wake cycle.

The strong connection between our mental health and physical health point to why gratitude also has astonishing effects on our bodies.  Gratitude has been known to improve symptoms in those with heart conditions by improving sleep and reducing inflammation.  Practicing gratitude helps regulate our sympathetic nervous system that causes our anxiety response.  When we train ourselves to focus on what we are grateful for, it filters out negative ruminating thoughts that cause stress, sadness, fear and anxiety.  When we are less stressed we are healthier.

Choosing to be grateful doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t experience difficult emotions.  Nothing is more frustrating than being told to, “look on the bright side of things” when you need time to sit with disappointment or sadness.  We need to feel emotions of anger, guilt, confusion, sadness and shame in order to fully feel happiness, gratitude, excitement, content and love.  Not everyone experiences the same level of gratitude, but there are ways you can practice it.

Here are some ideas to practice gratitude:

  • Keep a gratitude journal: Jotting down things you are thankful for before bed can distract you from negative thoughts and improve your sleep. Or you can use it in the morning to start your day with a positive and optimistic mood.
  • Spend time appreciating nature: Make the most of the season and take in the beauty of the outdoors.
  • Show your gratitude for someone: This is where gratitude goes beyond thankfulness in demonstrating you are truly gracious for them. Tell someone how they mean to you, write a letter or card, buy or make someone a thoughtful gift, help someone out with a chore, or do an act of service.
  • If applicable, practice gratitude for your higher power: Gratitude is taught as a key characteristic in several religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, however you do not have to be religious to have gratitude for a higher power. Ask yourself, “How has your higher power helped you?  How can you spend time recognizing that?” This might include praying, meditating, doing yoga, singing, etc.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people: Comparing ourselves to others is almost never helpful. For me, this means taking a break from scrolling through social media and remembering what I see if often someone’s “highlight” real and not reality.

It seems like this time a year, there are several hurdles that can rob our gratitude, such as the colder weather, less daylight or stress of the upcoming holidays.  In these times, it may take a more conscious effort to have gratitude. The saying, “neurons that wire together, fire together,” means the more we use a neural-circuit in our brain, the stronger that connection becomes.  Likewise, the more we practice gratitude, the easier it becomes for us to naturally notice things we are grateful for.  The powerful effects of gratitude should not be underestimated.

Jenny Birkholz, MSW, LGSW, LADC
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families