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Gratitude: A Valuable Tool For Mental Health

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Written by Jennifer Millette, LCSW, E-CYT 200

It turns out that adopting an attitude of gratitude is a valuable tool for your mental health. But how exactly does being grateful affect the body, mind and heart? 

The late Dr. Wayne W. Dyer strongly believed in the power of gratitude. In his classic book, “The Power of Intention,” he encouraged readers to practice gratitude at the end of every chapter, as he believed it was a vital tool for increasing overall well being and satisfaction with life. “You can’t feel stressed and appreciative at the same time” he affirmed.

It has also been said that the happiness most of us are seeking is actually a byproduct of gratitude. A great deal of research is now being conducted on gratitude’s comprehensive effects on individual health and happiness. One leading gratitude researcher is Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. at the University of California at Davis. His body of work includes studies about the effects of keeping gratitude journals. 

His findings show that those who consistently maintained gratitude journals- weekly or daily- had stronger effects and enjoyed many benefits compared to those who did not, including feeling more connected to others, fewer health complaints, extended exercise time, better quality and duration of sleep and a stronger overall sense of satisfaction with life. 

In addition, Dr. Joshua Brown and Dr. Joel Allen, researchers from Indiana University, found that when people are generally more grateful, as measured through writing letters of gratitude (but not necessarily sending them) and engaging in pay it forward type activities, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. “Most interestingly, when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.” 

So how can you start receiving the benefits of gratitude? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind: 

1. Be mindful about yourself and your initial thoughts about gratitude. 

Admittedly, it can feel daunting to try to focus on feeling grateful if you, your family or community are going through difficult times. It can feel like what has been called toxic positivity or spiritual bypassing; living in denial and pretending that things are good when they really don’t feel that way at all. True gratitude practice is honest and authentic. It doesn’t expect -or even want- you to pretend to be something you’re not, or that things aren’t happening when they are. Instead, it asks that you simply acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, and then see if you can find something you can still appreciate. This is a skill that might feel very awkward at first, but it can be built over time. 

2. Establish regular routines

Chances are you’ve heard of, or maybe already keep, a gratitude journal. If this is new for you, it’s suggested to start small,  listing 1- 3 things that you are grateful for every morning, and then gradually increase the number if you choose to do so. The entries to your journal can be big, little, or somewhere in between. Challenge yourself to keep finding new things to appreciate. Keeping them to specific things that are occurring in the moment helps them feel real, rather than listing something that you are actually struggling with at the moment. (For example, if you’re having a tough time with your kids, maybe writing “I am grateful that he/she/they ….” and then something they actually did that you appreciate, rather than “I’m grateful for him/her/them, even though they are really frustrating me right now”). You can also work gratitude intervals into transitions in your day . For example, take a moment before and after work to recall something you’re grateful for about that particular day.  Mealtimes are also a natural time to pause and ponder. Take time before you eat to appreciate the meal you are about to consume and think about all that was involved in creating that particular meal. 

3. Build the skill

Practicing gratitude is something that builds over time, with cumulative results. Similar to how you learn anything, like driving a car, you get the basics down first and then add in challenges to build your skills. Or like weight training, starting with a basic manageable weight and then gradually adding more over time, at a level you can tolerate while it builds strength. So once you’re feeling ready to flex your gratitude muscle, you can choose a common stressor or trigger situation (i.e., traffic, long lines at the store) and then next time you find yourself there, find one thing to be grateful about, in the situation or apart from it, and keep that gratitude going so it neutralizes any frustration or resentment.  

4. Live a grateful life 

There are several ways you can incorporate gratitude moments into how you live your life. When you catch your mind wandering during the day in its default mode, instead look around and think, “I’m grateful for …”  You can also begin speaking the language of gratitude, including regular expressions of appreciation in your interactions with others. From the stranger who held the door for you to the barista who remembered your regular order, look them in the eye, smile, say “thank you,” and mean it.  (Bonus — when you smile your mood automatically lifts.)   If you want to take it further, once a week, let somebody know specifically what they have done or what about them you are grateful for. You may end up brightening somebody’s day or week.

 Be prepared for “the gratitude effect.” The more you live a grateful lifestyle, the more others around you will, too. Gratitude is contagious! Author Melody Beattie sums it up:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Contact Counseling Works to guide you on your journey today!

 

References

Beattie, M (2000) Gratitude: Affirming the Good Things In Life. Mjf Books.
Dyer, W (2009) The Power of Intention. Hay House
https://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gratitude-and-well-being/
https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/in-praise-of-gratitude-201211215561
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