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Gratitude’s Positive Impact on Health and Well-being

Once a year we set aside a day as a nation to reflect on all of the reasons we have to be grateful (yes, it’s not just about turkey and stuffing!).

Many of us are well aware of the spiritual and mental benefits of cultivating gratitude in our lives, but it turns out the benefits of gratitude can even extend to physical health.

Truthfully, it’s not always easy to look past our problems and express gratitude. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult! So is it worth the extra effort? How do we cultivate the habit of gratitude in daily life, even when it’s hard?

Table of Contents

  • Why Is It So Hard to Be Grateful?
  • The Science Behind Positive Psychology
  • The Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude
  • How Gratitude Helps
  • An Attitude of Gratitude: Making It Stick

Why Is It So Hard to Be Grateful?

It sounds simple but it turns out there are biological reasons gratitude doesn’t come so easily. If you’re reading this on a phone or laptop, your living conditions are better than the majority of the world. You probably got to eat today, likely even food you chose and enjoyed, and you probably have adequate clothing. Yet it’s easy to dwell on the financial problems, the one negative comment on a blog post (*ahem*), or the one thing we wish we could fix about our bodies. This makes sense from a biological standpoint but makes gratitude difficult. We’re wired to pay attention to things that could be potentially negative or harmful as a survival instinct, but in a world of constant input from the internet and social media, this instinct can backfire.

The Science Behind Positive Psychology

Several studies have shown there may be a genetic component to our positive emotions (or lack thereof). The COMT gene helps us recycle dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that helps with a positive mood. Study participants with one version of the COMT gene reported higher levels of gratitude, while those with a different version of the gene had less feelings of gratitude. Scientists have identified several different gene variations that may play a role in how we feel gratitude and our mental well-being. They’ve also discovered that grateful people have more brain activity in certain areas. On the other side, toxic emotions like envy, narcissism, and materialism inhibited people from feeling grateful.

The Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “If only I had ___ I’d be happy.” Or “if only I didn’t have to deal with ___ I’d be happy,” but this is a vicious cycle… Psychologist Shawn Anchor explains in this great TED talk that gratitude and happiness are the first steps, not the end result. By choosing to be grateful and happy (whether we feel that way at the time or not), we’re literally choosing better physical health and mental health.

How does this work? Brain studies show grateful feelings increase our sense of well-being and relaxation. Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD, explains: “Heartfelt” emotions—like gratitude, love, and caring—produce sine waves or coherent waves radiating to every cell of the body, all determined through technology that measures changes in heart rhythm variation and measurements of coherence. Research shows that with “depleted” emotions—like frustration, anger, anxiety, and insecurity—the heart-rhythm pattern becomes more erratic and the brain recognizes this as stress. This in turn creates a desynchronized state, raising the risk of developing heart disease and increased blood pressure, weakening the immune system, impairing cognitive function, and blocking our ability to think clearly.”

An Attitude of Gratitude: Making It Stick

Thankfully, cultivating a grateful attitude is possible, and it can be one of the easiest (and cheapest) changes in our healthcare plan! A few simple changes can help make gratitude a habit.

Counting My Blessings

As Martha Washington said: “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” So, if you’re grateful for anything today, please share it below in the comments! Five things I’m very grateful…


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