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Why Grateful People Live Longer, Happier, & Healthier Lives (And How You Can Too!)

Jun 8 2021
11 min read
Close-up of man and woman smiling together.

A recent study by the University of Southern California (USC) confirms that people who practice gratitude on a daily basis benefit from:

Better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure, a better sex life, “and a host of other things we associate with better health.”

This first study by a neuroscientist to study the effects gratitude has on the brain revealed what people with a gratitude practice have likely known and felt for a while: being grateful feels good. USC scientists discovered links (amongst study participants who practiced gratitude) to higher amounts of the chemical oxytocin, otherwise known as the feel-good hormone. The people in the study who practiced gratitude daily, exhibited less depression and anxiety, connected more deeply with others, were more generous, exercised often, and were less reactive or angry during times of conflict.

So how does this correlate to living longer and healthier lives? When you sleep well, you are less likely to over-eat, have stronger focus and memory, are less reactive, and have fewer bouts of depression. Those with less inflammation and healthy blood pressure rates, have lower risks for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disease. Finally, those who are grateful tend to be happier with their lives.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it? When you focus on what works, flows, and brings you peace, serenity, and joy in your life — you begin to feel good (for no reason), and start to appreciate what you have. This helps you to be happy independently, and not hinge your happiness on what others do, or don’t do. You become more accepting, less controlling, and even laugh more. Plus, spiritual experts say, when you pay attention to what works in your life, you begin to see, and attract, more positive aspects.

But just like an exercise regime, training your mind to be more grateful takes practice.

Canyon Ranch experts say it may feel unfamiliar at first — fine-tuning your focus to an appreciative lense — but, with practice, you’ll begin to see and feel the impact that this daily ritual can have on your well-being.

Expressing Gratitude

It helps to speak out loud. When we tell someone thank you, or say how much we appreciate certain things that they do for us, it not only makes the people in your life feel good and appreciated, but inspires them to do more. For instance, telling your significant other, “I love it when you text me in the middle of the day to check in. It makes me feel special and brightens my day.” This tells your partner you appreciate him/her. And everyone wants to be appreciated. Plus, saying thank you never goes out of style. Start to notice the kind and thoughtful things people do for you: a coworker who holds the door open for you, a driver who lets you into the lane, a stranger who smiles sweetly at you, the mailman who tells you to have a good day. Little thoughtful gestures, when noticed, amount to many moments that fill you with satisfaction. Instead of noticing those who annoy and aggravate, tell yourself to take note of those who bring positivity into your life, then challenge yourself to tell them, when possible.

Helps Your Body Function Properly

As mentioned earlier (and really can never be over-stated) the happiness that comes with gratitude is good for us: mind, body, and spirit. A gratitude practice reduces 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.

Changes Your Brain

Consistently practicing gratitude actually changes the way your brain functions, say experts. You’re re-wiring your brain to think in a certain way, and, eventually, you automatically come to appreciate the small 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.

Build Your Emotional Resilience

Most of the time, we feel stressed, not because of what has happened to us, but due to our reaction to what has happened, experts say.

When you’re going through a difficult time, or experience trauma or loss, you may feel sadness, distress, or anxiety. This is normal and you need to allow your feelings. But those who have steeped themselves in gratitude, have built up a resilience of positive thinking that helps to find ways to cope. For instance, after a breakup, someone who is not positive, may think: “This always happens to me! Clearly, there’s no one out there. I’m going to die alone.” The person who has trained her brain to think with a positive, grateful lens, may think: “I’m so sad. I really liked him. But it wasn’t meant to be. Someone who is open to love will come in for me at the right time.” Your “filter” — what you’re looking at life through — helps you flow through the life, or get stuck in tangled thoughts. When you have a gratitude practice, even during times of strife, you’ll think and/or write down what you’re still grateful for, such as: I’m grateful for my life. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for my loved ones. I’m grateful for the lessons and the growth.

Without that inner strength that comes from an ongoing practice of gratitude, you might feel more defeated when faced with challenging moments. Plus, grateful people tend to have created more social bonds, and during times of loss, and it’s important to have supportive friends to lean on.

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. 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 often voice your differences with respect and compassion for the other person’s point of view. That can make all the difference, say relationship experts. For instance, here are two ways to voice a disappointment:

Grateful way: “I understand that you’re stressed at work and stretched thin. I want to help, but I’ve got a lot on my plate too. How can we get back to sharing household chores equally?”

Reactive negative way: “I’m fed up! I just can’t do this anymore. You’re selfish and taking me for granted. You expect me to work the same number of hours as you do, and still cook and clean and do 90 percent of the household chores. This isn’t working anymore.”

Which conversation would you rather engage in? A grateful person keeps in mind the good in others and gives others the benefit of the doubt — encouraging friends and family to step up into the light you see around them.

Here are expert tips to start your gratitude practice today:

Make Mindful Moments

Take a few moments throughout the day to get in touch with the present moment. This allows you to let go of thoughts of the past or future, and stop being frazzled or distracted. Notice what you see, hear, smell all around you. Pay attention to the wind or the sun on your face as you step outside, the smell of a bakery as you walk past, delight in a child stomping in mud puddles joyfully, look at the smiles on the faces of a couple who are holding hands. How does this all make you feel? And then think about what you are thankful for in that very moment. It can be simple things, such as a butterfly that floats past, light filtering down through leaves, or music from a passing car.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Note three things you’re grateful for each day. They can 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, (and not just the tried-and-true non-descriptive list of friends, family, pets, job, health) — it helps you hard-wire this attitude of gratitude into your brain. Writing can go beyond a journal — you can leave a loved one a note to say how you feel. Sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, a love note on the fridge door, a text during the day, all make those who mean a lot to you feel special.

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 in a personal way.

Start a Bedtime Ritual

Thinking about what you’re grateful for before you go to sleep can be a comforting habit. Often we toss and turn because our minds won’t turn off — we’re worried about things or thinking about the next day. 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. If you have children, it can be fun to ask them to tell you three things they are thankful for that happened that day. As a parent, it brings you closer, and reminds you to do the same. Another way to relax and melt into gratitude, is to mediate before bed. Place your hands on your heart, take three deep breaths, and ask yourself what made your heart sing that day. Then visualize the float of the butterfly, the smell of coffee, your lover’s kiss, your dog’s fantastic wagging tail. Place yourself back into the vibration of these events, then mentally say thank you to all who brought a little lightness into your day.