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Why Gratitude? 5 Ways Giving Thanks Can Cultivate Balance and Joy

why gratitude

While we are still learning why gratitude actually works, the science is clear that its benefits are not just limited to the holidays. Expressing gratitude turns out to be one of the most effective tools we have for adding positivity and connection.

Research shows that saying “thank you” and feeling gratitude are as good for us as for the people we are thanking. When we say “thank you” or express gratitude to someone else, we must leave the confines of our own private experience and consider others and our relationship to them ­– two things that have been shown to improve adaptive functioning.

Indeed, studies show that the practice of gratitude is associated with:

  • increased happiness and optimism
  • strengthened immune systems
  • lower blood pressure
  • increased generosity and compassion
  • reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation

When it comes to cultivating inner balance, and strong interpersonal connections, few experiences are more helpful than gratitude. Here are 5 highlights of why gratitude helps, and how you can cultivate more.

 

1. The Squeaky Wheel Shouldn’t Always Get the Grease

Sometimes the squeaky wheel shouldn’t get the grease. While we are set up neurologically to attend to pain and discomfort, we have a hard time detaching from it. We can easily become mired in thinking only about the negative, and then we struggle to get out of the negative spiral our anxiety can cause. Indeed, negative feelings, and anxiety in particular, invite us to action, sending us important messages that deserve our attention. However, when we focus on the negative aspects of a situation, it is easy to get lost in negative feelings and miss the bigger picture – the opportunity to take action. When we focus on greasing only the squeaky wheel, we end up neglecting all the other wheels.

 

2. Gratitude Expands Our Perspective

Taking a general “attitude of gratitude” helps us keep a broader perspective on our place in relation to others, and protects us from getting too wrapped up in ourselves. When we search for reasons to be thankful, we are focusing on the positive – an exercise that is well-known to help alleviate negative thinking and the negative feelings that follow. Because feelings follow thoughts, it pays to be vigilant about the thoughts we engage. Focusing on positive thoughts, and the feelings of gratitude that naturally follow, allows us to broaden our perspective, especially when we get mired in the negative.

 


“The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.
”

– William James


 

3. Gratitude Builds Connection with Others

Expressing gratitude to others is a basic tenet of human interaction, and it helps us build interpersonal connection and relationships. There is never a bad or inappropriate time to express gratitude or to say “thank you.” People love to hear that they are appreciated, and we feel closer to people when we express gratitude – a powerful display of authenticity and vulnerability.

Research on gratitude in relationships show the more grateful people are about their partners, the more likely they are to stay in the relationship. Likewise, gratitude in collegial relationships has a similar positive effect. University of Pennsylvania psychologists found that a supervisor’s “thank you” gave employees, “a strong sense of both self-worth and self-efficacy,” and that the “expression of gratitude has a spillover effect: Individuals become more trusting with each other, and more likely to help each other out.”

 

4. Gratitude is a Choice

The most renowned gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) concludes gratitude is a choice. While there will always be elements of our lives with which we struggle, choosing to see the positive is an decision that builds mental resilience. The choice to ask yourself what is good, and for which you are grateful, especially in challenging situations can literally change your experience for the better.

 

5. Gratitude Takes Practice 

In order to have a sweeping effect in your life, gratitude takes practice. This choice can be encouraged daily, as Emmons recommends, or less frequently as others have suggested. The point is to begin a practice that can become a habit that in turn becomes a lifestyle attitude (again, the so-called “attitude of gratitude”). In doing so, says Emmons, not only do we feel happier and more positively, the health benefits kick in as a result.

 

Gratitude doesn’t have to be big of complicated. In considering how to cultivate more, aim to take an open mind and keep your practice aimed at small moments. It’s in the micro-assessments of our experience that we can take the most control, and make the most headway.

Where our thoughts go, our feelings follow. Labeling our experience is already a powerful emotional coping tool, and nudging our awareness to the positive puts this strategy into hyperdrive.

Curious how to do it? Consider keeping these short questions handy next time stress and frustration threaten.

  • What are the silver linings of today’s stress?
  • How could your perspective broaden?
  • Where is the positive, and for what can you feel grateful?
  • Who can you thank today?

Next time anxiety and stress strike, don’t be shy to think positively and ask yourself for what you can be grateful.

 

Looking for more help cultivating balance and managing anxiety? Check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for my free mini-ecourse to help you hack anxiety’s most common challenges and keep it working for you, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

 

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

2 Comments

  1. Brigitte Peck on November 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Practicing gratitude was something I learned from our sweet friend Christy! I would have told you that being thankful makes me happier. Now, thanks to you, I know why!! Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. MamaMarlaine on December 3, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you Dr. Clark for speaking to the fact that human bodies thrive when embracing gratitude. I started a gratitude journal many years ago. Some days, when I felt more like strangling my kids and murdering my husband then expressing gratitude, I seriously struggled to simply write “Thank you for shelter, thank you for food,..” Over time however, things changed dramatically. In the same manner our biceps get stronger when we exercise, so too do the pathways to gratitude grow stronger when we exercise them. Not only did gratitude become easier with practice, my body’s capacity to flood me with happy hormones like oxytocin increased also – a natural high in its purest form. Thank you for sharing this good news forward!

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