Thanksgiving is the hallmark holiday for families to reflect upon and recite what they are grateful for. While Thanksgiving is a good reminder to practice gratitude, research tells us that practicing gratitude all year round is really the way to go.
So What Exactly Is Gratitude?
While there are many definitions out there, Harvard Medical School’s is all encompassing of the intricate emotion. Gratitude is:
“a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”
In the past few decades, researchers have been uncovering the incredible effects a life of gratitude can have on our physical and mental health. Studies have correlated the regular practice of gratitude with an increase in sleep quality, resilience against stress, positive emotions, better ability to handle negative emotions, and a decrease in: physical pain levels, anxiety and depression. Scientist believe the positive impacts all start with the brain.
How it Works
In 2009, the National Institute of Health (NIH) discovered that feelings of gratitude activate a region of our brain known as the hypothalamus. This brain region plays an important role in many essential bodily functions, such as: digestion, emotion regulation, thirst, appetite and digestion and heart rate. An increase in activation in this area means an increase in functioning.
Another important neurobiological effect of gratitude, is that is floods our brains with the chemical dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, as well as regulate mood and movement. In other words, our brain rewards us for practicing gratitude buy releasing “feel good” chemicals, which makes us motivated to practice gratitude again to continue feeling good!
Putting It Into Practice: Three Ideas
Family Gratitude Jar
Create a special jar where family members can write or draw pictures of “good things” that happen to them. At the end of the week or month, go through the jar as a family and share the moments you are grateful for. The jar also serves as a visual reminder of all the things the family has to be grateful for.
Here is on mom’s way of making and using a gratitude jar link
Each day, or week, list 3-5 things you are grateful for. These can be big things or small things – some days it may be easier to do than others. Get specific and try to notice more than just tangible items. Noticing new things you are grateful for each day will begin to train your brain to look for the good in other situations. This can be done at almost any age!
A study conducted by Emmons and McCullough (2003) found a correlation between gratitude journaling and increased levels of energy, attention, determination, enthusiasm, exercise patterns and optimism, as well as a decrease in physical ailments.
A quick search on Amazon or Google, will uncover many already crafted gratitude journals. For those who shy away from paper and pencil, there are also many gratitude journaling apps!
Write a letter of gratitude. We often forget about all the people that have profound effects on our lives. Why not let them know? This can be anyone from your mother to the postman. Make it a weekly activity with the kids. Not only will it benefit them physically and mentally, but academically as well!
University Researchers under Expanding Science and Practice of Gratitude Project found that participants who wrote one letter of gratitude a week for three weeks had better mental health than controlled and expressive groups. Now that’s in just three weeks – imagine the benefits of doing this for longer!
Remember, practice makes progress. Therefore, let’s all practice gratitude more than just one day a year! What are you grateful for today…?