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Gratitude makes a difference

| Wellness | Mental Health | Healthy You

Close-up of Thank you note with drawn hearts, resting on a lap

You might be surprised by the health benefits of a simple word of "thanks"

Here’s an easy exercise you can do anywhere, anytime. You won’t need special clothes or equipment. You can do it by yourself or with others. And it’s totally free.

What is it?

It is…saying “thank you.”

As simple as it sounds, gratitude can make a surprising difference in your health. Clinical studies show strong links between physical health and mental or emotional well-being. Research in the past two decades has found that having a grateful attitude can have several physical, mental and social benefits including:

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Fewer aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better sleep
  • More optimism
  • Lower stress
  • A greater sense of belonging

“Interestingly, research is confirming what we already know: our physiological chemistry changes when we open ourselves up to goodness and experience gratitude,” said Andrea Zikakis, a chaplain for PeaceHealth hospitals in communities in northwest Washington.

“On a chemical level, oxytocin and dopamine get released into our bodies, which immediately boost a sense of wellness, connectedness and happiness,” she said. In turn, those senses strengthen our health and resilience.

Grounding in Present

“Expressing gratitude helps us put our lives in a more positive perspective,” said Steven Rolnick, Ph.D., a psychologist for PeaceHealth in Eugene, Oregon. “It helps us define what is most meaningful in our lives.”

“When we’re anxious, recognizing what we can be grateful for keeps us grounded in the present and reminds us of what we have to manage the future. It also helps us appreciate what we have gained from our past,” he said.

Count blessings, not sheep

You can count your blessings at any time — wherever you are — sitting at a stoplight, standing in line or waiting for your morning coffee. You can take mental notes of the people and things that make you happy.

“Gratitude is a way to see and experience a generous world,” said Zikakis. Her own philosophy is that being grateful does not require adding more to her day, but rather seeing and experiencing the day differently. “It allows me to notice and be affected by things that are kind, beautiful or good.”

A good example is the day she was out for a short walk at lunch. When she heard the familiar staccato of a pileated woodpecker, she felt a little “jig” of joy in her heart and a smile on her face as she watched him tap a lamppost outside of the hospital. She said she has enjoyed her memory of the magnificent bird for far longer than the few seconds she watched him. "I still feel a little endorphin hit with the recollection.”

Whether or not you notice kind, beautiful or good moments throughout the day, you might try recalling them at the end of every day.

“Thinking about what we are grateful for when we turn off the light at bedtime are some of the best thoughts to have to promote a good night’s sleep,” according to Rolnick.

Keep a notepad on your nightstand. You can jot down thoughts and memories and relive the joy each time you read or recall them — like Zikakis’s woodpecker.

Inward and outward expression

Do you have to voice your gratitude out loud to others? According to the research, not particularly. But sharing your insights and experiences with others can multiply or magnify your feelings of gratitude. Besides, it can make others feel good too.

“Thank you’s connect people…whether that’s a connection to God or to one another,” according to Zikakis. “One of my atheist friends told me that he does not feel a need to pray to God for help, but he does sometimes feel compelled to say thank you to something bigger than him.”

Light and dark can’t co-exist

Some research points to the fact that when we focus on something positive, it’s much more difficult to feel negative.

“If what we are grateful for, exceeds our expectations, we tend to be more content,” said Rolnick.

Connection with others is also key. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the negatives in this world. But often there are still moments of connection despite what’s happening.

Zikakis offered this powerful example: 

“A woman who lost her 3-year-old daughter told me that ‘in the midst of unbearable pain and sorrow, the tears and touch of the nurses somehow made the worst day of my life, a little better.’ Her ability to hold on to something tender in an avalanche of terror has helped her navigate her loss. It also enabled her to not be overwhelmed by total darkness. Somehow when we are open to all that is happening, we experience ordinary graces that assist us in intolerable pain.”

How to be grateful

Is there a “wrong” way to be grateful? Not really. But there are lots of resources to encourage you to build and exercise a grateful mentality.

Rolnick recommends a small, but helpful book:  Attitudes of Gratitude - How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life, by M.J. Ryan, MJF Books, (1999).