Are you looking for an easy way to improve your mindset and wellness in this very stressful time? If so, I highly suggest considering the many benefits of gratitude!
If you’ve ever thought that people who touted the benefits of gratitude were “out there,” or if you’ve just been wondering what the benefits are I’ve got you covered, friend.
I was curious, too. So I did some research, and I was really impressed! If you’re anything like me, these nine scientifically proven benefits will make you want to add a little more thankfulness into your daily life! For real.
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Why Should We Choose Gratitude?
Have you ever noticed that after an event, presentation, lesson, or social gathering, your mind dwells on the one negative thing that happened (or you think may have happened)?
I can think of an instance at an event where I was presenting. My vivid memory of this event is of the one person who didn’t smile, didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t laugh at any of my (admittedly really bad) jokes. This person just didn’t interact at all.
Now, there were about 30 other people there who DID do all (or at least most) of those things, but that night my mind kept focusing on the one who didn’t. AND I replayed it over and over in my mind. For days. On a constant loop.
It happened years ago, and to this day I can still remember that person (and the negative feeling), more than any of the others or the overall positivity of the event. Yep, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.
Has this ever happened to you? If so, don’t feel bad. Research shows that we aren’t alone.
This phenomenon is known as the negativity bias, and it appears to be our natural tendency as humans.
Negativity Bias? What’s That?
Simply put, the negativity bias is our hard-wired propensity to notice and give more weight and importance to negative things and situations than we do to neutral or positive ones.
I love how Rick Hanson explains this in his book, BUDDHA’S BRAIN: THE PRACTICAL NEUROSCIENCE OF HAPPINESS, LOVE, AND WISDOM. He says: “[Your brain is] like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster.”
This is what caused me to notice and ruminate on that one person who didn’t smile or interact, instead of noticing and remembering the 30 others who did!
Gee thanks, negativity bias.
The good news is there’s a lot of research to support mindfulness and gratitude as a way to overcome our negativity bias and deliver so many other amazing benefits along the way! I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited about that!
What does gratitude do for your health and wellness?
Gratitude has several impressive and impactful benefits for both your physical and mental wellness. We will discuss five benefits for your mental health including increased self-esteem; decreased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse; and improved relationships. We will also examine six benefits for your physical health including improved sleep and stress management and some fascinating cardiac benefits.
Of course, this information isn’t medical or mental health advice. If you feel depressed or anxious or are struggling with any type of addiction or illness, please seek help from a qualified physician or mental health provider. It can do a world of good!
So, What is Gratitude?
Before we dig into the benefits of gratitude, let’s talk more about what gratitude actually means. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gratitude quite simply as “the state of being grateful: thankfulness.”
The Cambridge Dictionary goes a little further with their definition: “a strong feeling of appreciation to someone or something for what the person has done to help you.”
Although the above definitions are simplistic, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, Ph. D., gets more specific. His two-pronged definition of gratitude is: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness…The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. …We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude for Mental Health
1. Balance out our negativity bias
Remember the natural negativity bias we talked about? While we might not think it’s such a great natural tendency, there is good news. As a result of increasing gratitude and mindfulness, you can actually balance out your negativity bias.
For instance, by focusing on things you’re grateful for you can interrupt the negativity loop going on in your mind. Therefore, the more you focus on positive thoughts, the more you can overcome the negativity bias. This makes a lot of sense. I’ve seen it play out in my own life. I bet you have, too.
Hanson explains that the solution isn’t to try to prevent negative experiences. Instead, he suggests you “foster positive experiences–and in particular, to take them in so they become a permanent part of you.” This, it would seem, is the very description of mindful gratitude.
2. Enhanced self-esteem
I think we can all agree that it’s important to have healthy self-esteem. As a teacher, I have noticed that a student’s self-esteem typically directly impacts his/her learning.
For example, students who have poor self-esteem are typically afraid to participate in class, ask questions, or take risks. On the other hand, students who have healthy self-esteem typically behave in much the opposite way.
Self-esteem is certainly a factor in the healthy development of children. Therefore, I was glad to see that the results of numerous studies throughout the years show that gratitude enhances self-esteem.
This is good news for all of us, not just students. Who couldn’t use an increase in self-esteem?
3. Decreased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse
This year has been filled with more anxiety, fear, and worry than most years I can remember. From my conversations with many people, this seems to be the norm for the majority of us, especially this year. Would you agree?
I was encouraged to learn that gratitude can positively impact all of these mental health areas. According to Wood, A. M., et al, thankfulness was associated with a “significantly lower risk of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, and drug ‘abuse’ or dependence…and a much lower risk of bulimia nervosa.”1 Wood, A. M., et al., Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration, Clinical Psychology Review (2010), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005.
4. Improved relationships
Studies have shown that gratitude can help improve our relationships. For instance, grateful people feel more loved. Additionally, people who count their blessings tend to be more positive and feel more connected in their relationships.
5. Block Negative, Toxic Emotions
Do you struggle with negative or toxic emotions like regret or resentment, as I do at times? Gratitude can actually help to block these types of toxic emotions since emotions like envy and gratitude cannot be felt simultaneously.
“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness.”— Robert Emmons
Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude for Physical Health
6. Improved Sleep
Are you looking for ways to improve your sleep latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep), the length of time you’re able to stay asleep, and/or the quality of your sleep? Yeah, me too.
There’s good news for both of us! Practicing gratitude has been proven to improve all these aspects of sleep. Research says it can even improve how refreshed you feel when you wake up. I’m on board for that!
7. Stress Management
This year has been really stressful for all of us! And I’m sure we all know the negative impacts on our physical and mental health as a result of stress. The good news is that it seems that gratitude can help us manage stress in many ways.
A study by McCraty and colleagues2McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D. et al. The impact of an emotional self-management skills course on psychosocial functioning and autonomic recovery to stress in middle school children. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 34, 246–268 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02688693 revealed a significant reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, along with a positive impact on DHEA/DHEAS (a naturally occurring hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands) and heart rate variability. Heart rate variability (HRV) is basically the variation in time between the beats of your heart. A higher HRV is typically associated with greater resilience to stress and greater cardiovascular fitness.
8. Cardiac Health Benefits
When I read about the impact that gratitude can have on cardiac health, I was really amazed. For example, the science in one study showed that gratitude could lead to improved outcomes, including a reduction in the levels of inflammatory biomarkers, in patients who had asymptomatic heart failure.
Another study, according to Jeff Huffman, Ph.D., found that gratitude was associated with “lower levels of inflammation throughout the bloodstream and the body, a calmer fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system, and other effects that are clearly linked with better prognosis and longer survival” in heart attack patients. Huffman is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Cardiac Psychiatry Research Program (CPRP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.
9. Increased Likelihood of Maintaining a Healthier Lifestyle
Numerous studies have indicated that gratitude is linked to an improvement in maintaining a healthier lifestyle overall. Of particular interest is an increase in behaviors such as exercising more often, taking medications on time, and making healthier food choices.
Ready to Start a Gratitude Practice?
The research shows that a focus on gratitude has many benefits for both our mental and physical health and well-being. Since starting consistent, daily gratitude I have noticed a positive shift in many of these areas.
Head over to this post to get started with 7 simple gratitude practices. You can even grab my FREE Gratitude Journal over there!
Did any of these 9 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude make you want to add a little more thankfulness into your daily life? Which was the most surprising benefit of gratitude?
Comment below to let me know!