• Dr. Tara Tranguch

Give Thanks, Get Happy and Improve Your Health!

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” – Proverb


This week is Thanksgiving in the USA. A wonderful time of the year where we acknowledge everything we are grateful for.


Gratitude is a powerful human emotion. It feels good to be appreciated. And it feels good to be appreciative of others!


Due to the upcoming holiday, I took a dive down the rabbit hole of scientific research done on gratitude and how it affects our mood and physical well-being. I was amazed at the plethora of interesting studies that popped up!


The trait of gratitude is defined as “a wider predisposition to notice and appreciate the world in a positive light”. (1) Scientific research proves that gratitude, or the appreciation of the things one has in life (with things broadly including people and situations), promotes happiness and well-being. (4)


For example, one randomized clinical trial of 1,337 participants assessed the effect of gratitude intervention on well-being and mental health found that “the gratitude intervention managed to increase positive affect, subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce negative affect and depression symptoms.” (2)

Hmmmm so does this mean that NOT being grateful results in feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life?

“Positive emotion has been associated with enhanced self-regulation and resilience as well as promoting self-motivation. In particular, expressing gratitude is known to promote positive mind-sets and reduce stress levels. Gratitude is an important component of mental healthiness throughout life, and it contributes to mental well-being. Gratitude has been associated with a lower risk for psychiatric disorders, higher life satisfaction, and wisdom. (3)


That is ALOT of health benefits from expressing gratitude!


Let’s break it down…

Being grateful increases positive affect, which is associated with enhanced self-regulation, resilience and self-motivation. (3) Self-regulation, resilience and self-motivation are required to choose and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Mental positivity is associated with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which leads to increased gratitude, which contributes to increased mental positivity, and so the cycle continues. This is what is known as the “upward spiral theory of lifestyle change”. (4) Does gratitude come from being healthy or does being healthy contribute to being grateful? The answer is both!


If you are looking to make lifestyle changes to improve your health or if you are working to heal yourself, expressing gratitude can contribute to your ability to achieve your health goals.


In addition to gratitude’s impact on our psychological well-being, being grateful may also have a direct effect on our physical well being.


A systematic review of gratitude on physical and mental well-being found that expressing gratitude improved sleep quality, blood pressure levels, blood sugar, asthma, eating behavior and may even lower inflammation! (1)


How does this work?


The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA stated that gratitude does change the neural structures in the brain (known as neuroplasticity) and makes us feel happier and more content. (6)


When we express gratitude or receive gratitude, the following occurs:


✔ Our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that make us feel good. (s6)

✔ Dopamine also helps to alleviate pain, being grateful can also contribute to reducing pain symptoms.

✔MRI studies found that expressing gratitude activates the hippocampus and the amygdala, two areas of our brain that regulate emotions.

✔Gratitude activates the hypothalamus, which regulates sleep helping us to get deeper sleep. ✔Gratitude was also found to reduce cortisol making us more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.


“Gratitude interventions have demonstrated consistent associations with improved psychological well-being including increased life satisfaction, mood, happiness and positive affect, and small effects on depression and anxiety.”(1)

Do you have the trait of gratitude? Are you reaping all the mental and physical benefits that come from daily awareness of gratitude?

Take the GQ6 Gratitude Questionnaire at this link here. (It takes 5 minutes).


How did you score?


If you need to increase your level of gratitude, here are a few Gratitude Interventions, or techniques/exercises to increase one's feelings of gratitude.


Integrate these into your life and see how your well-being grows!


Gratitude Interventions

  1. Appreciate yourself. Stand in front of your mirror and speak 5 good things to yourself. Compliment yourself with positive words.

  2. Journaling. Each day (or each week) write down 3-5 things in a journal that you are grateful for.

  3. Gratitude Jar. Decorate a jar or box. Each day jot down 1-3 things you are grateful for on a piece of paper, fold it, and put it in the jar. You will have a visible jar full of all the things you are grateful for.

  4. Gratitude rock. Go outside and find a rock you like. It could be a rock from a river bed or from a mountain… Leave the rock on your desk, in your entrance, anywhere where you will see it regularly. When you see your gratitude rock stop to think about one thing you are grateful for and express that gratitude.

  5. Gratitude letter. Write a letter to someone you are grateful for and let them know you appreciate them. Dr. Alex Korb, in his book Upward Spiral mentioned that gratitude forces us to focus on the positive sides of life. When we give and receive ‘thank you’ notes, our brain is automatically redirected to pay attention to what we have, producing intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present. (6)

There are many other gratitude crafts, some of which would be great to do with children, such as a gratitude tree or flower. Read about more gratitude exercises here.

During this week of Thanksgiving, make an effort each day to express gratitude and see if you note an impact on your overall health. What a great way to improve our own health -- and the health of those around us!

Sources:

  1. Boggiss A, Consedine N, Brenton-Peters J, Hofman P, Serlachius A. A systematic review of gratitude interventions: Effects on physical health and health behaviors. J Psychosom Res. 2020;135:110165. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110165

  2. Cunha L, Pellanda L, Reppold C. Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Front Psychol. 2019;10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584

  3. Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim D, Kim H, Kim J. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9

  4. Zaremba K. Health Effects and Tips for a Positive Mood. Fullscript. https://fullscript.com/blog/positive-mood-health-benefits. Published 2020. Accessed November 18, 2020.

  5. 13 Most Popular Gratitude Exercises & Activities [2019 Update]. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-exercises/. Published 2020. Accessed November 22, 2020.

  6. The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/. Published 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020.