Gratitude is something that has been ever present on my mind the past few weeks, even more than usual. With the holiday season upon us, I have had many patients express how grateful they are for caring for them, improving their quality of life and even just being an ear to listen to whatever might be going on in their lives. And while it does feel good when someone expresses their appreciation, I find myself reflecting and feeling deeply grateful for the opportunity to care for others and have their trust placed in me. It is something that I do not take lightly. Every day, every interaction is an opportunity to help someone on the path to healing and for this opportunity, I am forever grateful.
Okay, now for the science! Gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. It is a feeling of thanks or appreciation. It encompasses a wide array of feelings and behavior. It can be something as small as someone letting you over in traffic or gratitude for a huge gift like organ donation. It can also be narrowly focused toward a single person or can be a broad focus such as being thankful for life in general. It can be focused on past positive memories and being thankful for past blessings, the present as in not taking the present moments for granted and the future, having hope and optimism for what is to come.
In research, gratitude is consistently associated with happiness. “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships” (Harvard, 2021). One study by Emmons and McCoullough, two prominent gratitude researchers, had two groups of participants, one which wrote about things they were grateful for each week and the second group wrote about irritations from the week. After 10 weeks, the grateful group felt better and were more optimistic about their lives, no surprise. What is interesting, is that the gratitude group also exercised more and had fewer healthcare visits during the study showing the connection between gratitude and physical well being.
Other studies have shown, that people who practice gratitude 2-3 times per week report feeling more joy, meaning, happiness and awe in their life experiences. Gratitude practice has also been shown to help heal from prior trauma and help to be more resilient if faced with a future trauma. It can reduce anxiety and improve general well-being and motivation. It has been shown to even reduce inflammatory markers in the body. It has also been shown to improve social relationships across the board. One such study of partners showed that when individuals took time to express gratitude that their partner felt more positive and also felt more comfortable expressing concerns.
As with most things in science, there is some debate about what style of gratitude practice is effective or most effective. As it turns out, studies have shown that receiving gratitude seems to be the most potent form. Since we can’t all sit around waiting for others to express how grateful they are, it is also effective to recall in your mind a time when someone showed gratitude to you, in as much detail as possible including how you felt in that moment. You can also think about positive stories of gratitude and thanks of others, such as strangers helping one another. This seems to elicit certain neural circuits in the brain that just thinking about what we are thankful for does not completely activate. Recalling gratitude, either a time where you received gratitude or a story of others gratitude, actually activates physiologic changes in your heart rate and breathing, into a more relaxed state, thus possibly making it a superior way to practice gratitude.
This is not to say we should not think about the things we are grateful for but perhaps we should also express our gratitude to those around us and we might just change their neural circuitry and well being.
All this said, implementing a gratitude practice is a simple and quick thing we can do to improve our well being and the well being of others. Here are some ways to start :
- Express gratitude to those in your life whom you are thankful for on a regular basis
- Write thank-you notes
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Count your blessings
- *Recall a time when someone expressed their gratitude to you in detail
- *Think about a story about when strangers helped one another and expressed thanks
To learn more about Alison Percowycz, NP, owner and Functional Medicine Practitioner at Wild Rice Wellness, click HERE.
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- Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, Damasio A. Neural correlates of gratitude. Front Psychol. 2015 Sep 30;6:1491. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491. PMID: 26483740; PMCID: PMC4588123.
- Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377-89. doi: 10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.2067. PMID: 12585811.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.” Harvard Health, Aug. 2021, www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make- you-happier#:~:text=In%20positive%20psychology%20research%2C%20gratitude.
- Hazlett LI, Moieni M, Irwin MR, Haltom KEB, Jevtic I, Meyer ML, Breen EC, Cole SW, Eisenberger NI. Exploring neural mechanisms of the health benefits of gratitude in women: A randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2021 Jul;95:444-453. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2021.04.019. Epub 2021 Apr 28. PMID: 33932527.
- Pérez P, Madsen J, Banellis L, Türker B, Raimondo F, Perlbarg V, Valente M, Niérat MC, Puybasset L, Naccache L, Similowski T, Cruse D, Parra LC, Sitt JD. Conscious processing of narrative stimuli synchronizes heart rate between individuals. Cell Rep. 2021 Sep 14;36(11):109692. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109692. PMID: 34525363.
- Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim DJ, Kim HE, Kim JJ. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 11;7(1):5058. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9. PMID: 28698643; PMCID: PMC5506019.