The end of the year is a perfect time for self-reflection. It’s a built-in vantage point to look back on the past year at all the things we did and all the things that happened to us, good and bad. We can see how far we’ve come, but also where we’d like to go from here. It’s also a great time for a reminder of one of the most important things we can do for our overall happiness and wellbeing: to practice gratitude. And we’re not just saying that because of Thanksgiving-- or because gratitude is an important part of our CEO’s daily routine! For many scientifically-backed reasons, gratitude has an important place in our daily lives.
Gratitude makes us happier
It won’t come as a surprise that being intentional about feeling gratitude makes us happier. Sitting down to think about the good things in our lives naturally has an uplifting effect on our moods. But the positive effects of gratitude extend beyond the moment itself. A study run in a school had one group of children list things they were grateful for, and another group list hassles and annoyances in their lives. The children who “counted their blessings” were found to have a more positive outlook not just immediately after the exercise, but at a check-in three weeks later. Another study of adults found that writing a thank-you note to someone who deserved recognition made them much happier over the course of the entire next month. It’s too easy to get caught up in the difficulties and challenges of life, and to focus on the negative. Acknowledging all the positives in our lives can be the perfect solution if we have this tendency.
Gratitude makes us less materialistic
This one is another good reminder for this time of year, as everyone’s out shopping for holiday gifts. We all like receiving something heartfelt, but people who are more materialistic tend to be less satisfied in life, specifically because they lack gratitude, which as we know makes people happy. Gratitude reminds us that the real goodness in life doesn’t come from the physical things we have, but from the intangible forces of other people and nature. Material items will inevitably lose their appeal, but things like friendships or the enjoyment of the beautiful day stick with us much longer and are able to perpetuate themselves in the way physical items can't.
Gratitude improves our physical health
There is a lot of evidence that gratitude, in addition to increasing our emotional wellbeing, boosts our physical health. Namely, it’s linked to better heart health. One study found that optimistic people had a 30% lower risk of developing heart disease, while another study that tracked women over 10 years found that those with a positive outlook on life significantly reduced their risk of heart attacks and strokes. The reason is that the stress that comes with a negative outlook results in a higher heart rate and blood pressure. Along with better heart health, gratitude is associated with better sleep and less fatigue, as well as fewer complaints of aches and pains.
Gratitude improves our relationships
When we feel gratitude for other people, whether for something they’ve done for us or just for their presence in our lives, it strengthens that relationship. We’re more likely to act in ways that show our appreciation and respect, which the other person can feel and return. It’s a symbiotic relationship that in turn brings us closer together. The science backs this one up as well-- a study from a few years ago linked expressions of gratitude with the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is the hormone, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” that plays an important role in feelings of trust, recognition, and romantic connection in our brains. It gets released when we feel gratitude, promoting a bonding feeling with the other person in question.
There are many ways we can remember to feel and express gratitude. Some people keep a gratitude journal that they write in every morning or evening. You can make gratitude part of a mindfulness practice. You can make a point to write thank-you notes to the people in your life. Find what works for you! Even if you only express these feelings once a month, the positive effects of gratitude will be well worth it.