- The Chemistry of Gratitude
- Gratitude and Overall Well-Being
- 5 Ways to Experience and Express More Gratitude
- In Conclusion
“An attitude of gratitude brings great things. – Yogi Bhajan”
How many of us take gratitude for granted? I’ll be the first to admit that I do. I often forget that being grateful extends well beyond saying “thank you” to the barista at Starbucks or to the attendant at the gas station. While being polite is always gracious, it can also unfortunately become rote – by the time I pull out of the drive-thru, my thoughts are consumed by the audacity of how much I just spent on a hot beverage and little else.
Being truly grateful takes energy and sometimes it’s energy I honestly don’t feel I can muster. When I do take the time and make the effort to express gratitude, however, I am always surprised by how pleasant I feel – it’s hard to give thanks and not feel like smiling (go on – try it!). Any anxiety or worry I experience – and I do habitually – is in the least momentarily suspended and I feel like I can finally exhale.
What if I could build on those moments – one after another – by focusing more on what I am grateful for than what I find scary, worrisome, or depressing? What would my brain look like, my health look like, and my life ultimately look like if I learned to take the time to appreciate what I may often overlook?
Experiencing the physical and emotional effects of a chronic illness such as lupus can undoubtedly strip us of the precious, present moment as our thoughts maneuver down the rabbit hole of worry and exhaustion. It can be difficult to see the forest for the trees when it takes every ounce of our being just to feel somewhat presentable some days. If we knew how being grateful could truly enhance our overall well-being. However, we may be surprised to find out it may be worth the effort.
The Chemistry of Gratitude
Dr. Sara Gottfried, a leading expert in hormones, discusses how showing thanks – especially on a regular basis – can increase the influx of “feel good” neurotransmitters in our brain. According to Gottfried, “Gratitude begets gratitude…Once you have the feel-good benefit of gratitude, you’ll want to keep feeling it.”
Gottfried goes on to explain that feeling thankful and expressing gratitude for even the simplest things in life can:
- Decrease the stress hormone cortisol. Having too much cortisol can result in poor sleep quality, weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mood swings.
- Increases “happy” neurotransmitters: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Read “Happiness: Increasing the Odds – and Neurotransmitters” for more on how these neurotransmitters work to improve our sense of well-being.
- Promote a good night’s sleep: This, in turn releases the hormone melatonin – which enhances the next night’s sleep. Having too little melatonin is not necessarily detrimental to health, but having enough does keep your circadian clock ticking.
Gratitude and Overall Well-Being
As you may have read in “Happiness: The Wonder Drug of Well-Being”, the kind of good feelings that gratitude can generate can positively impact your overall health and well-being by:
- Protecting and promoting good cardiovascular health.
- Lowering blood pressure.
- Increasing physical stamina.
- Decreasing stress.
- Improving sleep quality.
- Controlling weight-gain.
While gratitude can’t exactly cure lupus, it can lead to the positive emotions that can enable a better outlook on life which can in turn lead to feeling:
- Less depressed and anxious about living with autoimmune disease.
- Less isolated and more socially connected – others may open up to you about their challenges and struggles with living with lupus which creates community.
- More self-confident and more in control of how you feel and better able to pace yourself on the days you think you can do it all – but really shouldn’t.
- Better able to cope when your symptoms want to get the better of you.
- More capable of communicating effectively with family, friends and your healthcare practitioner – you may become a better advocate for yourself.
In a seminal 2003 study, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough examined the physical and psychological effects of expressing gratitude. One group of participants was asked to record what they were thankful for while another group was not. While Emmons and McCullough admitted to limitations in their research – such as the duration of the study and on the question of whether expressing gratitude would positively impact individuals who are clinically depressed – the group that tracked gratitude indicated they experienced better sleep quality, more physical activity, a more positive outlook on life, and fewer physical symptoms than the group that did not.
5 Ways to Experience and Express More Gratitude
Expressing gratitude doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to look for the big or materialistic things to be grateful for – sometimes the seemingly mundane can make the greatest impact (“it’s the little things”). A smile from someone you love, the smell of fresh snow, having the energy to make breakfast for the kids, or being able to enjoy an hour spent visiting with a friend can evoke even momentary feelings of joy which can be gratifying.
Here are five easy ways to capture these feelings of gratitude:
- Keep a gratitude journal. The journal itself doesn’t have to be elaborate nor do your thoughts. A simple notebook and a comfortable pen may be all you need to start tracking what inspires gratitude – you don’t even have to write in complete sentences. Jotting down a word or phrase may be enough for reflection and inspiration. Start out with even one thing a day that made you feel even a little better or something you were surprised you were able to accomplish, and you may be surprised on how quickly they add up.
- Send a thank-you note. In this age of technology, it’s so easy to fire off a text or email – or series of emoticons – with great ease and often minimal thought. Taking the time to look for special notepaper or a card to write out a thank-you to a friend or co-worker who made your day a little brighter keeps you in the present, slows the mind, and will be greatly appreciated!
- Go public. Chronicle things you are grateful for in social media posts. The holiday season is a great time to start this practice. Pick one thing each day you are grateful for and post about it on your page – again, aim for simplicity in order to keep the pressure off. You may be surprised at how infectious this practice may be!
- Display visual reminders of things you are grateful for. If writing is not your thing, follow accounts on Instagram that post positive quotes or beautiful photos, create rotating desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your laptop of your favorite photos, or even clip pages from magazines and create a scrapbook of pleasing images or favorite recipes to peruse when feeling low.
- Pay a compliment. Genuinely – that’s the key – compliment someone or something at least once daily. It may be as simple as “That’s a pretty color you’re wearing,” or “It feels really good outside today,” or instead of just saying “Thank you,” to someone, include why you are thankful to show greater gratitude. “Thank you for helping get the dishes done without me having to ask.”
Old habits are hard to break and new ones are hard to make – don’t beat yourself up if there are days that you have a hard time finding things to be thankful for. Trying anything new can be daunting and takes time to adjust to. Incorporating even an informal gratitude practice into your daily – or weekly – routine, however, may prove to not only lift your spirits, but also the spirits of those whose lives you touch around you.
A practical guide to gratitude. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.unstuck.com/gratitude/
Buchman, J. (n.d.). The healing power of gratitude. Retrieved from: http://www.cfidsselfhelp.org/library/the-healing-power-gratitude
Campbell, B. (n.d.). Counting your blessings: how gratitude improves your health. Retrieved from: http://www.cfidsselfhelp.org/library/counting-your-blessings-how-gratitude-improves-your-health
Cortisol (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
Dealing with chronic illness and depression. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/chronic-illnesses-depression#1
Depression and chronic pain. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-chronic-pain#1
Emmon, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf
Gottfried, S. (2018). Thanksgiving: What gratitude does to your brain. Retrieved from: https://www.saragottfriedmd.com/thanksgiving-what-gratitude-does-to-your-brain/
Melatonin (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/melatonin/
Article written by: Liz Heintz
Liz Heintz is a technical and creative writer who received her BA in Communications, Advocacy, and Relational Communications from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She most recently worked for several years in the healthcare industry. A native of San Francisco, California, Liz now calls the beautiful Pacific Northwest home.
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