By Dominika W. Kriozere, Esq.
I imagine you have already heard a lot about gratitude and how great it is for you. Whenever life becomes challenging, at least one friend or family member will likely remind you to appreciate and give thanks for all the good things in your life. Is there anything else to be said about gratitude? I submit there is indeed, and it bears repeating. Feeling even just a little bit thankful every day will bring long-lasting positive changes into your life.
First things first. What exactly is gratitude? Merriam Webster Dictionary defines gratitude as “the state of being grateful,” and the adjective “grateful” is defined as “appreciative of benefits received.” More complex definitions go deeper than this, and frequently emphasize the social aspect of gratitude. For example, an article published by the Harvard Medical School states:
“Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”
Much research on gratitude has been done by psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In their 2003 paper on gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life, Drs. Emmons and McCullough describe gratitude as a two-step cognitive process which includes: (1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and (2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
We can say then that we do not feel grateful for the good things we accomplished by hard work or those we feel we deserve. We feel grateful for the good things we received when we did not intentionally pursue them or work for them; the good things we received not because we earned them but rather because of the good intentions of another person. Gratitude is both a positive emotion we feel when experiencing something good and a recognition that we are experiencing this positive emotion at least partially because of another person or perhaps even a higher power.
The benefits of gratitude are many, and we have scientific studies supporting these findings. Let us touch upon a few:
Gratitude improves psychological health. This is a big one. We frequently focus on our physical health, but our psychological or mental health is at least equally (if not more) important. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to take care of our mental well-being. Thankfully, in a 2015 study of 410 Italian participants, regular practice of gratitude significantly predicted fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Gratitude increases happiness. Even if you are not suffering from depression or anxiety, gratitude can make you happier! According to a couple of studies, practicing gratitude for as little as 5 minutes each day can increase our happiness by more than 10% and as high as 25% in some cases. Giving thanks regularly challenges the human brain’s negativity bias, i.e., the natural tendency of our brains to focus on negative events (designed by evolution to ensure our survival) and helps maintain a more positive outlook. I would venture a guess that most of us could use more positivity in our lives, and not only after such a universally challenging year.
Gratitude improves physical health. Not only do we enjoy better mental health when we feel thankful, but gratitude practice can also make us healthier physically. The results of a 2013 study of 962 Swiss adults between 19 and 84 years of age indicated that people who felt more grateful were more likely to report better physical health. This was particularly true for the older participants. The researchers found that those who practice gratitude had better psychological health, participated in more healthy activities, and made better decisions with respect to their healthcare, all of which led them to experience actual better physical health.
Gratitude improves sleep. Most of us do not sleep long enough or well enough. The negative impact of insufficient sleep on our health can be severe. A 2011 study of university students with persistent sleep problems found that those who practiced gratitude prior to bedtime worried less, which moderately improved their sleep.
Gratitude helps relieve stress. If you do not feel stressed A LOT (welcome to the legal profession, and just living in the modern world in general), you are a very unique – and very lucky – individual. Stress – in the appropriate amount and when justified – is not bad in and of itself. However, when we suffer from chronic stress (and a lot of us do), this can wreak havoc on our health. A 2017 study found that focusing on feeling grateful lowered the participants’ blood pressure (a change associated with calmness) and decreased activity in the regions of the brain associated with anxiety. Try this for yourself – it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to feel anxious and grateful at the same time. Between the two, always choose to feel grateful.
Gratitude increases mental strength and resilience. As we have seen particularly clearly this year, developing internal resources to support mental resilience can make a huge difference in our quality of life. There are different tools we can use to increase our mental strength and one of them is to focus on feeling grateful as frequently as possible. The results of a 2003 study of U.S. college students indicated that gratitude (along with other positive emotions such as love) was a major contributing factor of resilience post 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even further, there is evidence that gratitude practice can help with the long-term effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a 2007 study of 182 female undergraduate students with trauma history, post-trauma gratitude was associated with lower symptoms of PTSD; a 2006 study of Vietnam War veterans found that veterans with higher levels of dispositional gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD.
Gratitude promotes higher self-esteem. So many of us frequently feel we are not good enough. It is a lie of course. As cliché as it sounds, just by being yourself. You are good enough, and your self-worth should never be in question. And if you need a little boost, gratitude can help. Focus on feeling grateful and you will increase your confidence and self-esteem. In one study, participants in a four-week gratitude contemplation program reported higher satisfaction with life and self-esteem than the participants in the control group. The results of another study indicated that higher levels of dispositional gratitude were associated with greater self-esteem and well-being.
Gratitude strengthens relationships. Last – but most certainly not least – gratitude strengthens our relationships with others. Humans are social creatures. We need other people. We need to feel connected. So why not do everything we can to improve our relationships with our romantic partners, families, friends and colleagues? Gratitude is a social emotion. It has been shown to strengthen relationships with our significant others and to improve our friendships. Even a simple act of saying “thank you” to a new acquaintance increases the likelihood of it developing into an ongoing relationship. Five different studies conducted in 2014 found that gratitude increases empathy and allows us to understand others better; this, in turn, decreases aggression. Not surprisingly, when we have better relationships, we also enjoy greater support from others – and, whether we like to admit it or not, we all need it.
This list is by no means exclusive. There are plenty of other benefits of giving thanks and feeling grateful. I hope you can see from just these several examples how gratitude can improve your life.
Go on and give gratitude practice a try. How? It is actually amazingly easy and will become second nature the more you practice. Start a gratitude journal; every morning or evening (or both!) write down a few things you are thankful for. A few times a day, pause and take a moment to look around and notice all the people and things in your life you feel grateful for. Say “thank you” more frequently. These little things take barely any time and almost no effort. And you will start feeling better immediately.
Attorney Dominika W. Kriozere practices transactional real estate and business law in Los Angeles. She is also a well-being coach who helps people live more fulfilling and purposeful lives.