Healthy Habits: How Practicing Gratitude Can Boost Your Well-Being

Pink journal with words today i am grateful on white background with a green fern leaf and gold pen

For many of us, the holiday season can bring on anxiety, sadness, grief, and a sense of overwhelm. Expectations are high, travel can be exhausting, and gathering with family can be stressful—even in the best of scenarios. But with Thanksgiving last week, we also had a chance to practice gratitude (giving thanks is in the name, after all). And this practice has been proven to increase happiness and improve mental health all year round. 

So, while things can be tense this time of year, acknowledging what we are grateful for and building habits around expressing our appreciation sets us up for a brighter outlook and healthier lifestyle. As much of the world slows during down the holiday season, the work and reflection we do during this time can set us up for happiness, health, and success for many months to come. 

How Gratitude Affects Our Health

Several studies have been done on the effects that practicing gratitude has on our health—both mental and physical. According to University of California, Davis psychology professor Dr. Robert Emmons, practicing gratitude can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of depression and substance abuse, and even lead to better health habits like diet and exercise adherence.

A study conducted by Emmons in which participants kept a gratitude diary for two weeks showed that the habit produced “sustained reductions in perceived stress,” “reduced feelings of hopelessness,” and “improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain,” among several other benefits.

An article in the Wharton Healthcare Quarterly, a publication by the University of Pennsylvania, says that expressing gratitude causes neural circuitry in our brain stem to release dopamine. This triggers positive emotions, enhances performance, and fosters camaraderie. It also says that, like an anti-depressant, “when we reflect or write down the positives in life and at work, our brain (anterior cingulate cortex) releases serotonin.” This affects our mood, willpower, and motivation.

Research published in 2009 by the International Journal of Workplace Health Management described how data collected from seventy-nine nurses showed gratitude consistently resulted in less exhaustion, higher job satisfaction, and fewer absences due to illness.

All these studies suggest that our cognitive behavior can greatly affect our neural activity and result in more optimism. And being more optimistic improves our mental and physical health.

Take Stock in What You Are Grateful for

The best way to start practicing gratitude is by identifying what you are grateful for, but that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. We often get bogged down by thinking of all the things going wrong in our lives. Further, there is a lot of strife across the world today that seems all-encompassing and never ending. Opening your mind to gratitude involves thoughtful and detailed listing of everything you appreciate in your life.

Begin taking stock by thinking broadly before narrowing your focus. Do you have a place to live? Food to eat? Access to clean water, electricity, and a bed to sleep in? People you care about and who care about you? Sometimes the things that are most precious and essential in life are what we take for granted. Some things may not seem like a luxury to you, but could change someone else’s life. That thought can help put things in perspective.

Then, you can start listing the more micro-level things you are grateful for. Weekends off, maybe. A car that takes you to and from where you need to go. A pile of books you’ve accumulated and are excited to read. Or, listen, there’s nothing wrong with being thankful for your air fryer.

Build Habits Around Gratitude 

As Gary and Jay write in The ONE Thing, it takes an average of sixty-six days to form a new habit. Start by marking sixty-six days from now in your calendar and plan to add one thing to your gratitude list every day until then. At the end, you’ll hopefully have built a new habit and will continue to add to your gratitude list indefinitely.

Remember, these can be big or small things. You can be grateful for a promotion at work one day, and grateful that a flower bloomed in your garden the next. Practicing gratitude works best when you recognize where it comes into your life no matter the scale.

When you build and add to your gratitude list, you can take your practice to the next level by actively thanking or putting energy into the things that you are grateful for. If you’re feeling grateful for your pet’s companionship, take some time out of your day to play, exercise, or just snuggle with your furry (or scaly, or feathery) friend. If a neighbor helped you clear your sidewalk of snow, write them a note to thank them for showing up for you. All of these activities amplify the positive effects gratitude has on our health.

When we build habits around practicing gratitude, we will see the benefits far beyond the holidays. Use the upcoming holiday season this year to kickstart your new, reflective outlook and add a meaningful component to your life.

How have you practiced gratitude? What are you most grateful for this holiday season? Let us know on our Facebook page. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for more insightful articles and research. 

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