Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.
In November, just before Thanksgiving, most people start thinking about thankfulness. You think about your kids, hopefully your spouse, your home, your clothes, and your food. We talk to our kids about being thankful for all of the wonderful things that they have and being grateful for all of the wonderful things we provide for them. But why is it only around this particular holiday that we think about being grateful?
As soon as Thanksgiving passes though, our kids start making their Christmas lists, tallying up all of the stuff they would like for people to give them, and most of us start dreading all of the family visits, the cleaning, the present buying, and any of the other stresses that typically come with the holidays. Being thankful and considering all of the wonderful people and other blessings we have in our lives gets pushed to the wayside for the commercial nature of the holidays like decorating and cooking.
Being thankful is a state of mind that we need to carry with us all year long to be happier, healthier individuals. No really! There is tons of research available that talks about the benefits to our minds and our bodies from being thankful and positive, in addition to the massive amount of data on the detriment that stress and negativity can do to your system.
As it’s that time of year again, it just seems appropriate to bridge this topic again together. The sheer importance of being appreciative has been lost over time, along with the peace of mind, positive outlook, healthier systems and healthier families that come from constantly reminding ourselves of all we have to be thankful for.
It’s easy to get lost in the day to day, thinking about your financial situation, family drama, feelings of disappointment, the dreams you feel you’ve lost, the dirty house, the crying kids, and the areas of your life where you feel that you are lacking. I’m hoping that by discussing thankfulness again, you can regain some hope for the future, a second chance at your dreams, a different outlook on your current situation, and an appreciation for those wonderful people around you that love you.
What Does It Mean to Be Grateful?
A wise person once said that to be grateful is to have a great attitude. I think this means choosing to focus on the positive and refusing to let ourselves drown in the negative. If I really thought about it, I have many things in my life that could drag me down. I could think about my childhood, the people in my life that let me down, the losses I have experienced, the things that I would have liked that are not panning out in my life, the stress of caring for my home with two small children, etc.
However, instead of being depressed, and allowing the stresses and strains of life to depress me, I frequently review all that I have to be thankful for, which sometimes overlap. Let me show you. I am thankful that my childhood molded me into the strong, capable person that I am. Without each and every experience, and person, I wouldn’t have learned the lessons I have, and become the person I am. Even the things I love the most and get the most enjoyment from come from those experiences. I am extremely thankful for my beautiful home, and the gorgeous place I get to live with huge mountains watching over me. And most of all, the amazing husband and children that stress me out at times, also bring me the most joy and make my heart swell thinking of them.
Nothing else seems to matter when I consider all that I have to be grateful for. It’s a choice of mind you have to make for yourself.
Why Is It Important to Be Grateful?
It turns out there is a growing body of research which shows there are many psychological benefits to being grateful, including feeling happier and lowering stress, depression and anxiety. Not only that, there is also scientific evidence that expressing genuine gratitude on a daily basis can improve physical health as well by improving quality of sleep, cardiovascular (heart) health and immune function.
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. Some wrote about things they were grateful for each week, while the others wrote about weekly stresses. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Managers who remember to say "thank you" to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group—assigned to work on a different day—received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.
In his book, The Gratitude Effect, Dr. John Demartini outlined how important gratitude is in everyday life and also how it can transform any personal or business relationship for the better. He has some interesting ideas about how we can be grateful in everyday life and one of his quotes that I love is this:
“Wisdom is the instantaneous recognition that crisis is a blessing.”
In fact, the book was so successful that he now runs training courses and groups to help people learn how to deal with negative experiences and emotions and to see the positives and the blessings in the situation in order to reform and develop a greater understanding of themselves.
Can You Be Thankful for the Good and the Bad?
The easy answer is yes. Absolutely! But it’s not as easy as that is it? The truth is, that it’s not being thankful for something bad happening, but the good that comes from it.
For instance, when someone dies that was really sick, it's terrible. They were hurting, they lost their life, and now you no longer have them in your life. However, after you have had some time to grieve and process, you can remember all of the good times, be grateful that you had them in your life, and be happy that they no longer have to be in pain. Likewise, when you don’t reach a goal, you can be thankful that you now know where you were lacking and have the opportunity to become stronger in that area.
In my personal life, loss and pain has led me to the place where I am now in life. Without the knowledge of what I didn’t want, I never would have known what I did. I am now married to the greatest man in the world with two of the most beautiful children. I live in a place I never could have imagined, in a nice home, surrounded by things that I love. Even though every second isn’t perfect, I am currently living the life I’ve always wanted. And all of it was a choice. I chose to take the pain, rejection and loss I’ve experienced along the way and turn it into something wonderful.
It’s easy to believe that you don’t have anything to be thankful for when you feel like you’re drowning in life's negatives. You have to purpose to change your thinking and find the positives if you want to see positive change in your life. But how do you do that? Great question!
How Do I Become a More Thankful Person?
Robert Emmons, an internationally renowned expert on gratitude, has found that acknowledging the good in your life has a tendency to amplify your positive emotions, such as joy and contentment, because it helps you slow down. “I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life,” he says. “We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life.” It’s easy to ignore these small moments of positivity in our day as we rush from one activity to another, but stopping to appreciate them makes them have that much more effect on our lives.
The first step towards becoming more grateful, is to stop and consider all of the wonderful things you have. I don’t necessarily mean objects, though there is some merit in being thankful for our belongings. However if we focus on those, we lose everything if they go away. Are you in good health? Do you have good food to eat when you’re hungry? Clean water to drink when you’re thirsty? A roof over your head? Friends and family in your life that love you? A way to make money? A pillow and blanket to curl up to at night? These are all wonderful things to be thankful for!
But don’t dismiss the small things… Did you go all day without another headache? Were you able to ignore your cravings for another cigarette or piece of chocolate for a day? An hour? Did someone smile at you? Did you have good dreams last night? How about the weather? Did something beautiful happen that you enjoyed? Were you up early enough to see the sun rise or late enough to see the sun set?
Especially when you find yourself dwelling on the negatives, or getting overwhelmed, go through your list again. Maybe it would be helpful to post it in one or more locations to bring a smile to your face several times a day, or lift you up when you’re feeling blue. You could even make a habit of something to increase your daily gratitude, like write in a gratitude journal, keep a jar on the counter full of little pieces of paper where you’ve written all of the big and small things that you are grateful for every day.
You could speak those wonderful things over yourself when you wake or go to sleep, in the mirror or in the car, or maybe you could really get into it and purpose to begin thanking those people in your life for the things you appreciate about them. I try and tell my husband how much I appreciate how hard he works every day to pay our bills, I tell my friends how much I appreciate their support in my life, and even my toddler how much I appreciate his hard work keeping his toys picked up or potty training. You’d be surprised how good it makes you feel to make someone else feel good.
Sometimes just making the effort to smile at others more is enough to train your brain to think and feel more positively towards life.
What If Thankfulness Doesn't Feel Genuine?
I honestly think it takes effort and practice. We’ve been trained to stress and think about all of those things we don’t have. It’s in food and toy advertising, commercials on TV and the radio about travel, clothing, and even relationships. Especially if you live in America, we’ve all been trained to believe that we deserve whatever we want whenever we want it. Slowing down enough to appreciate a nice cool breeze, a hot cup of coffee and the way it warms your whole body from your head all the way to your toes, or even a child’s laughter and the way their eyes light up, takes your focus off of the everyday happenings around you.
When you find yourself thinking about what you don’t have, or haven’t accomplished, that’s the perfect time to review the things and people in your life you do have. I’m not saying you have to settle for less, give up on your dreams, or even fabricate things to appreciate. Everyone has tons to be thankful for every day. The world is full of things to smile at, wonders to be amazed at, and interesting things to delight at, if you are willing to look for them. Even a good smell, a beautiful color, or a soft touch are things to be thankful for.
Whatever you constantly think about, repeat in your head or your life, and talk about the most, you are training your brain how to see the world. According to Loretta Breuning, Ph.D., Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay, and author of "The Science of Positivity" and "Habits of a Happy Brain," this really isn’t all that shocking. (I love both of these books, and in fact, ordered them both for my husband in the past. They inspired this article and have made a big difference in both of our lives.)
“Our brain is not designed to create happiness, as much as we wish it were so. Our brain evolved to promote survival. It saves the happy chemicals (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) for opportunities to meet a survival need, and only releases them in short spurts which are quickly metabolized. This motivates us to keep taking steps that stimulate our happy chemicals.”
— Loretta Breuning, PhD
Even worse? “You can end up with a lot of unhappy chemicals in your quest to stimulate the happy ones, especially near the end of a stressful workday,” adds Dr. Breuning. Sometimes in order to become more positive, we have to uncover and then release the past negative experiences that we’ve been holding onto. Then from there, focus on making the future more positive on purpose.
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”—Abraham Lincoln
How to Practice Gratitude Everyday
It may sound difficult at first, but by adding in one new habit every day, or every week, soon you’ll be on the path to more peace of mind, a healthy body, and a happier outlook on life. Angela Ruth at Due.com has some great techniques for practicing gratitude. See some of them below:
- Observe your thoughts: Since we’re creatures of habit, you may notice that you have the same negative thoughts creeping up in your mind all of the time. Once you know what negative thoughts are bothering you the most, you can start working on a way to make them more positive. For example, instead of thinking about the fact that you don’t make a lot of money, consider being thankful for the job you have.
- Scan for the 3 daily positives: Before you go to sleep, reflect on your day and think about three specific good things that happened to you that day. By ending your day positively, you are setting the stage for less stress and better sleep, which will most certainly give you a better outlook the next day.
- Give someone a shout out: Research has found that showing gratitude can do anything from making you more optimistic to warding off coronary artery disease. By making it a habit to be thankful to others, you are also making them happy. The good feeling that this one simple act gives you will definitely be motivation for more.
- Help others: Any acts of kindness can boost happiness. Help someone carry their groceries, give them a kind word if they’re looking down, or even just give them encouragement through a tough situation. In all of this, you are training your brain to think about others, which takes the focus off of you.
- Surround yourself with positive people: Since emotions are contagious, it only makes sense that you would want to surround yourself with positive people who inspire, empower, and motivate you.
- Make time to do something that you love: This may be easier said than done, but if one of the best ways to become more positive is by making specific time for something that you absolutely love. The action doesn’t matter. Try to set aside an hour a day by setting boundaries that will free up a little time to something that gives you genuine happiness.
The Benefits of Thankfulness
From your overall health, to your daily mood and the way you view life, and even your state of mind, emotional stability, and way you treat others, having an attitude of thankfulness can change your life for the good. It’s impossible to really emphasize the amazing benefits of being grateful on a daily basis in only a few sentences, so let me share some scientifically proven benefits:
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Showing appreciation to others can actually help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion. The study found that thanking someone for just about anything makes them want to seek an ongoing relationship with you because you made them feel good. Acknowledging other people’s contributions not only makes you feel good inside, but it can lead to new opportunities.
- Gratitude improves your physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. When you value life and view it positively, you tend to want to take care of yourself and those around you. You likely eat healthier, get more sleep, have better hygiene, and get more exercise.
- Gratitude improves your psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression. “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” he says. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.”
- Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a more considerate and patient manner, even when others are not so thoughtful, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
- Grateful people sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal improves the quality of your sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.
- Gratitude improves your self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces the likelihood that you will compare yourself to others. Rather than becoming resentful when you see people that have more money or better jobs than you, those that are grateful are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments as well as their own without negative feelings.
- Gratitude increases mental strength. For many years, research has shown that gratitude not only reduces your stress levels, which can contribute to many illnesses and other health issues, but it also plays a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Be aware of all that you have to be thankful for, even during the worst of times, contributes to greater resilience.
We all have the ability and opportunity to be grateful every day. It’s a personal and very purposeful choice that you make to be negative and complain or positive and be thankful. Rather than complain about the things you think you deserve and don’t have, take a few moments as often as you think about it, to focus on all that you do have. Even the small, seemingly insignificant things in your life, like clean food and water, or a smile, are things you can be grateful for.
Developing an “attitude of gratitude” is one of the simplest ways to improve your satisfaction with life. It’s not going to be easy at first if you’ve gotten used to being negative, or have allowed the negative thoughts and the stressful moments in your life to overwhelm you. But with a little effort, a great book like Loretta Breuning’s book The Science of Positivity, and some positive changes in your daily habits, you too can see a dramatic change in your life all thanks to a little thankfulness.
I challenge you to 30 days of gratitude starting today. Make one change a day, or one a week, depending on your comfort level. You can take this gratitude quiz before and after the 30 day challenge to see how much you’ve improved. Why not give it a try and see what happens? It’s only your mental, emotion and physical health at stake…
© 2018 Victoria Van Ness
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on November 06, 2018:
Thank you Sean! You too!
Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on November 06, 2018:
My dear Victoria, thank you for this thoughtful, exceptional and helpful article. I am grateful to know you and for the opportunity to read your writings. You have done great work here! Heart and Soul but science evidence too! I wish many to read it. God bless you and your lovely family!
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on November 05, 2018:
RTalloni, I absolutely agree. Although God is alone enough of a reason to be grateful, my article wouldn't be seen by many. Thankfully we have plenty of scientific research to back up the sheer benefits of having a thankful spirit.
RTalloni on November 05, 2018:
Thanks for much to think about on the topic. Teaching children that there are many things (large and small) to be thankful for in spite of so much to be dismayed about in this world is crucial for their well-being.
It would be interesting to know more about the studies you mention, especially the personal back stories of the people involved in them. Though I do not agree with the idea that our brains save happy chemicals for survival purposes, there is not a doubt that counting our blessings has benefits for us as individuals, for our families and our communities.
If for no other reason we can believe that truth because God tells us it is so, but He gives us examples and experiences to teach the truth to us. People struggle when they dismiss what He says about it, but oh the joy that can be ours when we embrace what He says. There are many verses/passages we can draw from to help us begin the journey of true joy. Thanks again for a chance to stop and consider the blessings of a grateful spirit.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 04, 2018:
I absolutely agree with this article as feeling gratitude feels so much better than being depressed. i chose this way of life when my medical problems increased as I didn;t want to focus on the negative. The hormones secredted with the positive feelings is so much heathier. i am glad you spelled it out in such detail.