How Gratitude Improves Your Health
Religions around the world teach people that gratitude improves their lives. And science now has powerful arguments why it’s important to be thankful too, and why people should practice gratitude year-round. Multiple studies have looked at the effects of gratitude on our mental and emotional health, performance, how we act and also how it affects our brain chemistry. The results are all positive, and all phenomenal.
People who keep gratitude journals and write down things in their lives for which they experience an increase in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to people who don’t. Not only that, they feel more optimistic.
But the benefits go beyond how you feel. It also affects your actions. For example, people who practice gratitude have been shown to exercise more.
If that weren’t enough to get you to start a gratitude journal, it also decreases pain and improves sleep, anxiety and depression. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. When you’re focused on what you’re grateful for, aches and pain decrease. And the studies show this.
If you’re tired of your plantar fascitis, be grateful that you don’t have osteoarthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Distraction is a powerful tool anyone out there who is a parent knows. When our kids were little and they got a scrape or a small cut, the tears would flow. But with a little distraction and getting them to focus on something else, they didn’t feel the pain anymore and they calmed down. Gratitude is the adult version of distraction where you change your focus to something more positive. It’s a simple way to use your brain to get what you want.
How Gratitude Affects Brain Chemistry
The reasons how gratitude improves anxiety and depression are fascinating. Gratitude has a direct effect on depression because being grateful increases dopamine, our feel-good hormone. It increases the activity in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus that releases dopamine, and that lifts your mood and helps you feel good.
In fact, there’s an entire category of medications that affect that dopamine pathway. These are the selective norepinephrine receptor uptake inhibitors (SNRI) and include the drugs Effexor, Cymbalta and Pristiq. But unlike these drugs that have the unpleasant side effects of dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, sweating, fatigue, insomnia, osteoporosis, anxiety and constipation, gratitude doesn’t have any side effects. Gratitude only has side benefits.
Anxiety improves in people expressing gratitude because of an indirect benefit of helping people sleep better. When you sleep better you feel better, and anxiety decreases. Who doesn’t feel better when they just get a better night’s sleep?
Gratitude Done the Right Way
But in order to get all these benefits, you have to practice gratitude the right way. Comparing yourself to other people and that you’re better off than they are, doesn’t help. That’s not how gratitude works.
Gratitude done right requires that you recognize the positive things in your life. And there are countless examples of things for which people can be grateful. You could say, “I’m grateful for the food” at a meal. Or “I’m grateful that I have food in my kitchen” or “I’m grateful that the sun is out.”
It can be anything. “I’m grateful that there is gas in my car, and I was able to drive to work today” or “I’m grateful that when I close the door at night, I know that I am safe in my home, and comfortable, and protected.”
Oprah practices gratitude and we all know how amazing and successful she is. She’s talked about her gratitude journal, and she even wrote once that she was grateful for a squirrel that she saw. You can truly be grateful for anything.
When you practice gratitude you set off a virtuous cycle in your brain, where you not only feel better and sleep better, but you become more proactive with your health habits such as exercising. It’s a feed-forward system, where the grateful feelings and positivity build on themselves to improve health in all areas of your life.
If gratitude were a drug it would be a blockbuster. This non-drug, simple exercise is a prescription for health and success that makes sense for everyone. And it’s absolutely free.
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