Expressing our gratitude is something we’re mindful of during the holiday season, when we’re given a gift or on the receiving end of an act of kindness. But practicing gratitude each day can not only make us feel good but help us be physically and emotionally healthy for years to come.
“Gratitude changes you in an enduring, sustainable way and gives you an outlook that becomes part of who you are instead of just a passing state,” says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “It really does change the way you look at your life because you’re seeing things through an appreciative filter. And that view can help you feel happier and healthier.”
It may feel unfamiliar at first, but, with practice, you’ll begin to see and feel the impact that this daily ritual can have on your wellbeing.
…helps your body function properly. This may sound far-fetched, but the happiness that comes with gratitude helps reduce stress and, as a result, every system in your body simply works better. “Your immune system is stronger, your sleep patterns are healthier, your digestion is improved, your endocrine system functions smoothly and your brain is more alert,” says Rossman.
…changes your brain. “Consistently practicing gratitude actually changes the way your brain functions,” says Rossman. “You’re training your brain to think in a certain way and, eventually, you begin to automatically come to appreciate the blessings in your life that you may have previously taken for granted.” It’s like learning any skill: You really have to work at it before it becomes second nature.
…builds your emotional resilience. “Most of the time, we feel stressed not because of what has happened but because of our reaction to it,” says Rossman. “When you’re going through a difficult time or experience trauma or loss, you may feel sadness, distress or anxiety. But if you have steeped yourself in gratitude, you’ve built this resilience that helps you cope with it.” The “filter” you’re looking through buffers you a bit and helps you think more positively: I’m grateful for my life. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for my loved ones. Without that inner strength that comes from an ongoing practice of gratitude, you might feel more defeated when faced with challenging moments.
…strengthens your relationships. “When you tell friends and family how important they are to you, how much their kindness means to you, it’s powerful. They feel that appreciation and are likely to express theirs as well, which strengthens your connection,” says Rossman. Continuing to voice that gratefulness can also help when conflict arises. “Arguing is a natural part of relationships—we don’t always see things the same way—but when you have a deep, appreciative bond with someone, you may be able to better deal with it,” says Rossman. “Despite disagreeing, you still feel blessed that this person is in your life, and that enables you to work to resolve things.” Imagine arm wrestling with the person on top of the table and holding hands under the table, he adds.
To benefit now and later, start your gratitude practice today. Take a few moments throughout the day to get in touch with what you see, hear, feel—to really notice and think about what you’re thankful for.
Here are several ways to begin actively making this investment:
Keep a gratitude journal. Write down (or type) three things you’re grateful for each day. They could be simple things—the beautiful snow, the kindness someone showed to you, the necklace you found in the bottom of your jewelry box. “Be creative and come up with new things to jot down—it helps you hard-wire this attitude of gratitude into your brain,” notes Rossman. Writing can go beyond a journal—you can leave a loved one a note to let them know how you feel.
Use your voice. Tell your friend, “I really appreciate how much you help me.” Call Mom just so she can hear, “Thank you for always listening to me.” Or scratch behind your dog’s ears and tell him, “You’re wonderful.” Express your gratitude through a toast during an anniversary dinner or birthday celebration. Try it at work: Start or end a meeting with words of appreciation.
Say grace. Whether it’s before a meal or before bed, a prayer—to a higher power, the universe, or whatever you feel spiritually connected with—is a powerful way to show gratitude. “It’s an opportunity to share your appreciative feelings in a personal way,” Rossman says.
Start a bedtime ritual. Thinking about what you’re grateful for before you go to sleep can be a comforting habit. “Often times we toss and turn because our minds won’t turn off—we’re worried about things or thinking about the next day,” says Rossman. “Taking this time to reflect on and savor the things in your life that really matter to you can put you in a wonderful frame of mind to fall (and stay) asleep.”