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How Gratitude Can Improve Your Physical & Mental Health

There’s a lot of talk in the popular press about expressing gratitude – it’s almost become the next buzz word after “Be Mindful”! But what does it actually mean? This week, I’d like to discuss some of the science behind what gratitude is and what it does for us.

Studies over the past two decades have revealed many benefits of gratitude for our minds, bodies and relationships.

In 2015 a study was carried out by Joel Wong and colleagues on college students receiving counselling for anxiety and depression. One group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person weekly for three weeks. Another group wrote about their thoughts and feelings about their stress. The third group had no writing activity. One month and three months after the activities finished, the gratitude group reported significantly better mental health than the other two groups.

A 2016 study by Redwine, et al measured health indicators of patients with heart failure who kept a gratitude journal and found healthier resting heart rate and fewer signs that the disease was getting worse than the group who didn’t.

Surveys show that saying thanks at work makes people feel happier and hearing thanks makes them 50% more productive. This make sense when we think about how often people change jobs because they don’t feel appreciated.

A 2015 study by Cheng, et al found that health care providers who wrote down things they were grateful for twice weekly had a reduction in perceived stress by 28% and depression by 16%. It’s worth thinking about the positive flow on effect this has on patient care and comfort.

Gratitude connects us to those around us. It reminds us that we’re not alone and that there are good things happening to us every day, if we allow ourselves to see it. This is especially important when we’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or lonely. Building a sense of connectedness leads us to feel that we’re capable of tackling the big stuff because we’re not alone.

Gratitude helps us feel more generous to others. It makes us focus on the positive, so we can be more forgiving of things that may go wrong. Expressing gratitude can help us feel inspired, uplifted and motivated, so it builds our positivity.

Expressing gratitude forces us to recognise the generosity of others and encourages us to be generous in return – to pass it back or pass it on. In this way, it can rid us of psychological debts we may carry and build joy around us.

Gratitude has been shown to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and improve sleep. It builds optimism and happiness, increases alertness and improves resilience to stress.

Here are 3 Gratitude Practices that you might take on either alone or with others:

  1. The Gratitude Walk:

Set aside 20 minutes on a regular basis to take a walk outside by yourself. You might explore how to do this on your way to/from work or on a lunch break. Try to stick to a regular schedule so the walk becomes part of your routine.

As you walk, try to notice as many things as you can that you might feel grateful for. Do this with mindfulness, moving into your senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. For example, you could focus on the unusual colourings on the bark of a tree that you never really noticed before, the intricate architecture of a building you pass by, the sensation of sun on your skin, the smell of flowers or a freshly mowed lawn. You might note the laughter of children playing or you may feel like offering a genuine, spontaneous smile to a stranger you pass by.

As you notice these things, acknowledge each one in your mind—don’t just let them slip past you. Pause for a moment and make sure each experience registers with your conscious awareness, really take it in. Let the sensations around you conjure up feelings of gratitude for the gift of life and living that they represent. Try to walk a different route each day so you don’t become too accustomed to any of these things and start to take them for granted.

  1. The Gratitude Letter

Call to mind someone who did something for you for which you are extremely grateful but to whom you never expressed your deep gratitude. This could be a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague. Try to pick someone who is still alive and could meet you face-to-face, though if it’s not possible, you may choose to arrange a phone or video chat.

Now, write a letter to this person, guided by the following steps:

  • Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”)
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
  • Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behaviour affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
  • Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his or her efforts.
  • Try to keep your letter to roughly one page (~300 words).

Next, you should try to deliver your letter in person, following these steps:

  • Plan a visit with the recipient. Let that person know you’d like to see them and have something special to share, but don’t reveal the exact purpose of the meeting.
  • When you meet, let the person know that you are grateful to them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude; ask that they refrain from interrupting until you’re done.
  • Take your time reading the letter. While you read, pay attention to their reaction and yours.
  • After you have finished, be receptive to their reaction and discuss your feelings together.
  • Remember to give the letter to the person when you leave.

Practice originally created by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California, Riverside; Kristin Layous, Ph.D., of California State University, East Bay; and Martin Seligman, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania.

  1. The Wall of Gratitude

This exercise was developed for the workplace, but could easily be adapted to use in the family home. Suggestions in brackets are for the home.

Create a space where colleagues can acknowledge the positive contributions, work-related achievements, and herculean efforts of others. Hang a large bulletin board or large blank paper in a conspicuous location, along with post-it notes, or notepaper with thumbtacks, and markers nearby. Get creative—you could create a paper bulletin “tree” with leaf-shaped post-its, or use other shapes and designs that make the space attractive.

Place a little instruction sheet nearby. Invite colleagues (or family members if you’re doing this at home) to add positive notes and expressions of gratitude onto the bulletin board. In your instructions, you could invite people to pause and take a moment to reflect on a kind or selfless act that they witnessed or experienced (or thanks for a chore that was done by a family member). As the notes fill up the bulletin board, find opportunities during breaks and workday meetings to read a few of the notes out loud or in small groups, or invite teams to reflect on the expressions silently (at home you might do this at mealtime or before bed).

You might consider inviting visitors or clients to participate in the exchange, giving them the opportunity to express notes of gratitude for the service (or friendship) they received.

Adapted from ideas from The Greater Good Science Centre, Berkley

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