Is Gratitude really that good?
According to Google, gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful” and “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. Research has proven time and time again that it is essential for happiness. But what exactly does that mean and why is it so good for us? Seneca, who was a great Roman philosopher, wrote about a number of moral issues in his letters to his elder brother. He argues that true generosity is not measured by the results of the act, but by the intention from which it arises. Similarly, he states that it is better to get no return than to acknowledge no benefits. Gratitude focuses on what we already have instead of on what is missing form our lives. Senecca uses the crop as a metaphor: “Even after a poor crop one should sow again”. It rests on our attitude and the spirit in which we interpret situations, rather than on the outcome of a situation. We should not limit our grateful feelings to the actual gift received, but rather measure our gratitude based on the intention with which it was given. It is not about how much you have to be thankful for, but rather about how thankful you can be for what you do have.
Robert Emmons, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, is considered the world’s leading scientific expert on the matter. In his essay titled “Why Gratitude is Good” for the Journal of Positive Psychology, for which he is the editor-in-chief, he elaborates on the concept of gratitude. He argues that it has two key components: that of affirmation and that of realization. The first component is centered around the affirmation of goodness, thereby affirming that our world is filled with opportunities for goodness. The second part consists of the realization and acknowledgement that this source of goodness comes from both ourselves, but also from other people. By being humble and grateful, we become aware of our need to rely on others, and we realize the danger of being overly self-sufficient. There is great strength in recognizing our need for support from those around us. Emmons further elaborates on this idea of gratitude as a relationship-strengthening emotion. By grasping the importance of outside affirmation, we can in turn express our gratitude towards others. Ultimately, this leads us to not only be grateful for the goodness received but eventually also pay this goodness forward, which sociologist Georg Simmel describes as the “moral memory of mankind”. It is more than just an individual feeling: it is a mutual sense of understanding our need for others, and in turn, offering them the same support we are so grateful to have received.
Neuroscience and Gratitude
Neuroscientists at the University of Indiana recently conducted research on the neural effect of gratitude on brain activity. The subjects consisted of psychotherapy patients (for depression or anxiety), who were split into two groups. Group A participated in daily gratitude letter writing, whilst group B was not exposed to such an intervention. After three months, both subject groups underwent MRI scans. They were given a monetary gift and were instructed to donate an amount to a charitable cause which reflected the extent of gratitude they felt for the money gift. The results were astounding: those who participated in gratitude letter writing showed an increase in behavioural gratitude, which was measured by their passing on more money to a charitable cause. Consequently, group A also showed significantly higher neural variation by gratitude, as well as substantially better mental health, even three months after the initial gratitude writing exercise ended. Another study, titled “The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude”, used the same concept of a gratitude journal to measure the impact of gratitude. Once again, the results were conclusive: gratitude interventions are effective at increasing wellbeing and mental health, relieving chronic pain and depression symptoms. Gratitude practices have a similar effect to that of mindfulness interventions (such as meditation) and practicing kindness. Research such as this suggests that gratitude is not only helpful for healthy individuals, but also for people struggling with mental health and stress problems. Countless studies have further backed the claim that the act of gratitude leads to an overall happier and healthier life.
There are a variety of benefits to gratitude practices, many of which have been substantiated by scientific research and MRI scans. These scans reveal changes in neural activity, which showed the incredible and long-lasting impact that gratitude can have on the brain.
Gratitude makes you healthier
Practicing gratitude releases toxic emotions in your body, which can range from envy and frustration to anger and disappointment. By acknowledging the positive aspects of your life, you inadvertently let go of negative feelings, which improves both your psychological and your mental health. Research has shown that gratitude not only increases mental strength and reduces stress, but it also plays a large role in overcoming trauma. The act of recognizing things you are thankful for, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, fosters internal resilience and happiness. In addition to benefiting your mental health, gratitude also boosts your physical well-being. According to a study published in the Personality and Individual Differences Journal, people who practice gratitude experience fewer aches and pains, as well as feeling overall happier and healthier. This can be linked to the increased sense of positivity that is released, as well as the increased appreciation which makes grateful people want to take better care of their bodies.
It strengthens your relationships
Researchers compared the percentage of positive and negative emotion words, as well as “we” words that participants used in their writing. Subjects in group A, who participated in the gratitude letter writing exercises, used a higher percentage of positive emotion and “we” words. By shifting attention from negative toxic emotions to feelings of positivity and gratitude, receptiveness to appreciate the goodness in life simultaneously increased. When you write or think about how grateful you are for the people around you and the blessings they have brought you, it becomes much harder to brood on the negative experiences and feelings. By recognizing and honoring those around you, you strengthen the bonds your share and open the door to new relationships. Likewise, gratitude also strengthens your relationship with yourself. A study done by the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude resulted in an improved self-esteem and a reduced sense of social comparison. By focusing on the goodness already present, individuals are less negative towards themselves and others and more optimistic about their future. Whilst it is important to learn from your mistakes, it is also important to appreciate your successes, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. When you shift your mental energy from belittling yourself to empowering yourself, you positively impact your way of thinking, your intentions, and consequently your actions.
Being grateful has long-term positive effects
It takes time for the benefits to make themselves apparent, but when they do, they have a snowball-like effect. It is a practice that gradually builds up, thereby allowing for long-term effects on the brain and on your behavioural patterns. These impact your emotions, enhancing feelings of empathy and compassion and reducing aggressive behaviour. According to a study done by the University of Kentucky, grateful people have a higher likelihood of behaving in a socially-friendly way, even if those around them behave unfriendly. This can be explained by the increase in neural sensitivity that is caused by gratitude practices. This increased sensitivity heightens attentiveness to the goodness in life, as well as attentiveness to how this gratitude is expressed to others. Because gratitude does not only focus on the results gained but also on the intention, it becomes natural for the individual to assume only the best intentions of others’ actions. Even if others behave negatively, people who cultivate gratitude in their lives choose to look for and focus on the goodness. Furthermore, research showed that these practices caused an increase in neural sensitivity in the media prefrontal cortex, which is the brain area responsible for learning and decision making. Those who practice gratitude were found to make more informed and rational decisions in their everyday life, simultaneously decreasing their stress level. These effects were found to still be prominent three months after the start of the practice, which goes to show the long lasting and positive nature of the effects on the brain. Gratitude not only improves your daily life, interactions and thoughts, but it actually positively changes the way you process information.
The Goodness of Gratitude
It has become quite clear just how beneficial gratitude is to us- on a mental, physical and social level. But these benefits extend much further. Through gratitude you filter out and release negative emotions, which enables you to magnify your perception of goodness. This can be explained in a rather simple way: it is impossible to feel grateful and appreciative, and at the same time harbour feelings of envy and anger. The positive emotions released by gratitude actually end up replacing any negative emotions present. Additionally, a grateful perspective on life makes you more stress-resilient and decreases recovery time for any negative events or traumas that may occur. When you appreciate the small acts of goodness in your life, you increase your happiness and strengthen your relationship with yourself and those around you. By becoming more grateful for that which you already have, you simultaneously open yourself up to receiving more goodness in the future.
The best part about incorporating gratitude into your everyday life is that it is a tool that is always accessible to you. You do not need to put in much time or effort in to reap the many positive benefits. By practicing gratitude, you create a cycle of goodness that starts with yourself and extends onto others. By showing kindness and gratitude, you generate goodness, which eventually leads to new kindness and gratitude. Gratitude brings positivity into the lives of those around you, but it also positively impacts your emotional status and wellbeing. You feel less stressed and anxious and more happy and energized. Gratitude practices can come in many forms: as a morning thought, writing in your diary or phone notepad, or even incorporating it into your meditation or breathing practice.
Our Stress Guide App is designed to help you fight stress, cultivate gratitude and become more mindful. We have created a hub of guided meditations, mindfulness methods and breathing exercises designed according to your stress level and individual needs.
If you’re interested in trying our app as a way to bring gratitude into your daily life, you can download it for free and let us know if it helped you.
A little gratitude can go a long way- whether it is a mental “I am grateful for…”, a spoken thank you, a moment to meditate on the goodness in life or even just an appreciative smile.
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