Why Gratitude Matters: the Science of Giving Thanks

Canadian Thanksgiving just passed. This means that many people, at some point over the last weekend, expressed gratitude for at least one thing in their life. In our day to day, however, we often miss the opportunity to take the chance to tune into the present moment and think about what we are grateful for in our lives. Why start a daily gratitude practice?

Firstly, science shows that gratitude has the following benefits:

1. It can act as a natural mood booster and antidepressant because as we ask ourselves what we are grateful for, our brain produces more of the “feel good” chemicals, dopamine and serotonin;

2. It is linked to leading to other positive emotions including contentment, happiness, pride and hope;

3. It gives you a stronger immune system;

4. It lowers your blood pressure;

5. It strengthens social bonds and friendships, making those who practice it feel more loved and cared for by others;

6. It improves sleep quality;

7. It can make you a better in maintaining a relationship. Those who express gratitude to their partners were better able and more likely to work through difficulties in the relationship.

Secondly, in my experience, gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It illuminates all of the incredible, tiny elements that weave together to comprise our own unique tapestry of the human experience. The more that we focus our mind on all that we have in our lives, the more it seems like we have to be grateful for. Gratitude can change your perspective on your life, which is key to living with greater happiness and satisfaction.

I started a gratitude practice, which is where I write down three things I’m grateful for each morning, after I read that Oprah said that it was her favourite practice and I believe in adopting practices of those you admire. At first I was always grateful for the basics: that I had a roof over my head, that I was healthy, that I lived in a city where I felt safe, and that I could afford food. Over time, as the practice deepened, a new vista of things to be grateful seemed to appear before me.

I started to become grateful for specific past experiences, like eating a meal at a restaurant I love that embodies understated elegance, moments on trips that I have taken that cracked my heart open, times I spent with my girlfriends sitting on the floors of our living rooms drinking wine and laughing, or for the quiet moments I spent on my dock reading in the summer. Later, I noticed I was becoming grateful for things like my lungs for helping me breathe, that I have two legs that can walk, for the pillow that props up my back when I write, or for the richness of the colours on the painting on my wall.

Eventually I was feeling grateful for small moments throughout the day. I would be walking to work and I would see a six-year-old kid proudly wearing the most awesome light up sneakers, which would make me smile and set up my whole day, or I would be running late for a meeting and someone in the elevator would crack a joke and it would deflate my nerves. Gratitude started to colour my entire day, and as a result, my days felt richer.

If you are ready to get started, I recommend the following:

  • Write it down: in a journal, on your phone, or in an app like the 5 minute journal

  • Be consistent: neuroplasticity teaches us that our brains are able to rewire its neural pathways. The more that you practice gratitude, the stronger the circuitry of your brain that feels gratitude will become and therefore the more it will activate.

  • Share it: even if your practice starts privately, try expressing gratitude to those people who you feel grateful for. Sharing gratitude is a way to foster genuine connection between individuals.

References:

  • Emmons, RA, and McCullough, ME, (2003), Counting Blessing Versus Burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003 Feb, 84(1): 377–89

  • Fox, Kaplan, Damasio and Damasion, (2015), Neural Correlates of Gratitude, Frontiers in Psychology 2015 Sept, 30: 6, 149

  • Lambert, Nathaniel M.; Fincham, Frank D. (2011), Expressing gratitude to a partner leads to more relationship maintenance behavior. Emotion, Vol 11(1), Feb 2011, 52–60.

  • McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G, Watkins AD, (1995), The Effects of Emotions on Short-Term Power Spectrum Analysis of Heart Rate Variability, American Journal of Cardiology, 1995 Nov 15, 76(14): 1089–93

  • Overvalle, Merivielde & De Schuyter, (1995), Structural Modeling of the Relationship Between Attributional Dimensions, Emotions, and Performance of College Freshmen. Cognition & Emotion, 9, 59–85.