I’ve been thinking about gratitude over the past several weeks. After all, it is the time of year when we give thanks for the many blessings, privileges, and opportunities we’ve been given. I certainly have had my fair share. I’ve got my health, my faith, my wonderful family, and my business- no small thing in this time of pandemic.
At a time when so many people are struggling and hurting, when political strife and unrest abound, when illness and death literally ravage the world, it can be a tall order to be grateful. As a society, and as individuals, we can be anxious, stressed, and hurting in ways that we have not felt before. I have had many conversations with clients over the past several months about the depression, anxiety, and frayed nerves they’ve experienced from pandemic, the shut down, and the political unrest prevalent today.
Yet, even amidst the turmoil, stress, and hardship, I would submit that there are silver linings to this cloud. Families are spending more time together. As a society, we are learning about how to better care for ourselves. We are reaching out to family members, friends, and neighbors in ways that we wouldn’t have just a year ago. In fact, there are many blessings that we can identify if we have the right perspective. In doing so, we can feel better, have a deepening perspective that allows us to grow, and help bless the lives of those around us.
Recently, fellow members of my faith and I were challenged by the President of our Church -a prominent former heart surgeon- to express gratitude daily for the next week on social media (#GiveThanks) in an effort to spread positivity and help bring peace and calm to our troubled world (you can find it here). I took him up on that challenge. And while my sample size of one isn’t scientific or really measurable in any way, I have simply felt better as I've expressed gratitude for all I have in my life these past few days over social media.
Expressing gratitude isn’t just an exercise in social psychology or spirituality, it actually has physiological and neurological effects that have been identified in several scientific studies. In fact, the expression of gratitude positively affects our brain in numerous ways- here are 5 cited by Positive Psychology:
1- The expression of gratitude releases toxic emotions. In a 2005 study, individuals seeking mental health guidance that expressed gratitude via letter writing showed significant improvement over those who did not. (Moll et. al 2005)
2- Expressing gratitude reduces pain. A 2003 study showed that 16% of participants had a reduction in physical pain after keeping a gratitude journal. The expression of gratitude was found to release dopamine, promoting feelings of vitality and reducing feelings of discomfort.
3- Expressing gratitude improves sleep quality. A 2009 study showed that expressions of gratitude activate the hypothalamus region of the brain, which is critical in regulating sleep. Someone practicing ‘gratitude and kindness’ is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed. (Zhan, et. al 2009)
4- Expressing gratitude aids in stress regulation. A 1998 study showed that those who felt grateful saw lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body. Multiple studies have later showed those expressing gratitude are more able to handle stress than others.
5- Expressing gratitude reduces anxiety and depression. Because of the reduction of stress hormones, those who regularly practice gratitude are generally more positive. In addition, expressing gratitude is associated with an increase in prefrontal cortex modulation (helping control negative emotion like shame, guilt, etc.)
So as we all try to navigate the craziness of 2020 with all of its stress, disappointment, and mayhem, remember to be grateful. This Thanksgiving, let’s spend a few extra moments before we dive into turkey and football to write down a few things we’re grateful for. Maybe just scrawl a few things out on a napkin, or maybe even start a gratitude journal, or simply type out a quick email or text to a loved one and let them know you’re grateful they’re in your life. As we do so, we’ll not only reap the spiritual and emotional benefits of gratitude, but the physiological ones as well.