Note: This is the second article in our series on the socio-economic behaviors that lead to lives of fulfillment and financial security. To read the first article in this series check out “Does Generosity Lead to Happiness or Are Happy People Simply More Generous?”
As many families gather together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving and reflect on the blessings in their lives, we wanted to take a moment to discuss the importance thankfulness has in living a healthy life.
Studies over the past few years have found that people who intentionally count their blessings tend to live happier lives and experience less depression. Research also suggests that grateful people experience better physical health and increased life satisfaction.
An often-overlooked benefit of thankfulness is its impact on wealth accumulation. Thankfulness decreases materialism which leads to better financial decisions. When we are less occupied with displaying our wealth or comparing ourselves with others, we improve our ability to save and build for the future. While we could go on for hours on the importance of delayed gratification and saving for the future, we will address this issue later in this series.
So what about thankfulness? Why should we care?
Regarded as the “social glue,” there is plenty of evidence that gratitude provides societal benefits. Grateful people are more helpful and more generous. We become a better neighbor when we are more helpful and act more respectfully toward others, and this improves society. Gratitude also helps us perform our jobs more effectively and it helps us feel more satisfaction with our work. And gratitude encourages us to engage in behaviors that build relationships and strengthen bonds with those around us.
Gratitude not only benefits those around us, it changes us by changing our brain.
In a recent research study involving nearly 300 adults, UC Berkeley studied college students who were struggling with depression and anxiety (1). All participants in the study were engaged in counseling services, but the participants were randomly assigned to three different groups. The first group of counseling patients were instructed to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group was asked to write down their deepest thoughts regarding negative experiences; and the third group was not assigned any writing activity at all.
And what did they find? The group who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health than the participants who were in the other two groups. The authors of the research dug deeper into the results and shared four insights on gratitude’s psychological benefits (2):
1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions. “Perhaps this suggests that gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy. When you write about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life, it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences.” 2. Gratitude helps even if we don’t share it. “So if you’re thinking of writing a letter of gratitude to someone, but you’re unsure whether you want that person to read the letter, we encourage you to write it anyway. You can decide later whether to send it (and we think it’s often a good idea to do so). But the mere act of writing the letter can help you appreciate the people in your life and shift your focus away from negative feelings and thoughts.”
3. Gratitude’s benefits take time. “For now, the bottom line is this: If you participate in a gratitude writing activity, don’t be too surprised if you don’t feel dramatically better immediately after the writing. Be patient and remember that the benefits of gratitude might take time to kick in.”
4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. “Most interestingly, when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.”
If gratitude and thankfulness bring all these benefits, how can we cultivate gratitude in our lives?
While there are many ways to cultivate gratitude in our lives, here are 7 actionable ways to maintain a higher level of thankfulness in your life. (3)
1. Take Time to Smell the Roses. When we take the time to savor the simple but pleasurable experiences in our lives, they stick a little deeper in our brains. The next time you go for a walk and see a clear blue sky, or smell your favorite coffee, or see your children smile, take in that moment and enjoy it. The more present you are to experience that pleasure, the deeper the shift that happens in your brain.
2. Park the Entitlement at the Door. The opposite of gratitude is entitlement. Holding the perspective that we are owed something (by our family, or our spouse, or our employer, or society at large) is the quickest path to self-centeredness and dissatisfaction. Counting our blessings will have very little effect on us if the grievances in our head outweigh the gifts we’ve been given.
3. Recognize That Life Is a Gift. Robert Emmons, co-director of the Greater Good Gratitude Project (4) states that the antidote to entitlement is to recognize that we did not create ourselves. Recognize that we are created beings, that life is a gift to be grateful for, and not a right to be claimed.
4. Be Grateful for People, Not Just Things. When we recognize and acknowledge the people in our lives, it strengthens the emotional bonds and deepens our connection with those around us.
5. Be Specific. Rather than simply acknowledging your appreciation for the people in your life, be specific about what you are grateful for. Instead of telling your spouse you appreciate him or her, tell them one specific way they positively impact your life. We cultivate more grateful feelings through caring and attentive interactions with others.
6. Think About Death and Loss. While this sounds ironic, it isn’t. When thinking about our own death or loss of a loved one, we become more thankful for our own life and the lives of those around us.
7. Be Grateful for the Difficult Things in Life. Turn obstacles into opportunity by reframing loss into a potential gain. Psalm 27 states “I would have despaired unless I had seen the goodness of God.” When we go through difficult times in life, we can let them beat us or we can use them to become stronger. When facing difficult circumstances, give thanks for the challenging experience knowing that it will make you more empathetic and more capable of caring for those who face similar circumstances in the future.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Take time to count your blessings, to share the things you are thankful for with those around you, and cultivate a grateful heart for the abundant provision and the gift of life.
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