“It is not happiness that makes us grateful It is gratefulness that makes us happy. Every moment is a gift. … Whatever life gives to you; you will respond with joy. Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”
― David Steindl-Rast
Thanksgiving is that time of year when we show gratitude for family, friends, and lives well lived.
For a short period of time, we feel happiness-counting our blessings with an overall sense of contentment. Then when Monday rolls around it is business as usual. If we reaped any benefits from the holiday weekend they quickly disappear with the return of stress, negativity, depression, and loneliness. Our lives focus on the materialistic and our society seems to focus on what is lacking. We are bombarded with negativity through the news and reminded often of what others have and what we in turn lack. Because of this, it seems that rather than appreciating all the gifts we have, we tend to focus on what is lacking or missing from our lives. This can have a negative impact on our health in many ways.
It turns out changing the way we look at things, perception can be powerful in many ways.
Our perceptions form our beliefs and our thoughts and ultimately our responses. So good perceptions are beneficial to our outlook and our responses. One way to change perception is to practice gratitude. Gratitude is the act of focusing on what you have rather than what you lack. It turns out practicing gratitude often can not only change your perspective for the better it can pay off in health benefits.
We suspected thinking positively and practicing gratitude was good for us but now there are multiple studies that show this to be true. Dr. Robert Emmons of U.C. Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami did a study on over 360 individuals.
Half of the study participants had to write down something they were grateful weekly for 10 weeks while the other half had to write what irritated them each week. At the end of the 10-week study period, the gratitude group not only felt happier, but they also reported 10% less pain, showed 25 % improvement in sleep, 35% reduction in depression, and were exercising 19% more than the group who complained. Studies on brains in those who practice gratitude regularly showed an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is the portion of our brain that is important for planning and execution as well as personality. There have been over 130 studies looking at gratitude and perception and their effects on health. Most show positive results.
Life is hard and things do not always go the way we would like.
Our world is struggling in many ways and tensions are higher than they have been in years. Much of this comes from pointing out what is lacking and failing to appreciate what we have accomplished. We are bombarded with negative messages from the news and from those around us. This in turn changes our thoughts and beliefs to negative ones and then we are passing these to others. It is the domino effect in real life. Possibly we can start the change with ourselves.
Let us use this Thanksgiving holiday to start a daily practice of gratitude and aim to continue it for the next 365 days.
We can do this by journaling daily about the people, places, and things we appreciate. Maybe we can write a letter to someone for which we feel gratitude. Even if we do not send it, the act of composing it will help us reap the benefits. Possibly we can just practice saying thank you at work, at home, and in our daily encounters. These simple acts can have a profound impact on our perceptions and what we perceive can define our thoughts. What we practice grows. If practiced gratitude will grow all that is good in your life.
Wishing you a holiday filled with blessings and gratitude. Nancy A. Palermo MD