Gratitude and happiness often go hand in hand, especially when gratefulness is seen as something essential in our daily lives and not just as a passing emotion. Time and time again, scientific findings have proven that far from being a monolithic concept, gratefulness is a complex emotion that has physical, social, and cognitive benefits. Sounds interesting? Below we discuss this in deatial.
5 science-backed reasons to pick up a gratitude practice
1. Stronger Relationships
The social dimension of gratitude is one of the most important reasons to set up and/or persevere in a gratefulness practice. It can help us build stronger relationships because by practising it, we are acknowledging not only the existence of things to be grateful for in life but also and more importantly, we are acknowledging the source of those things. In the majority of cases, the origins can be traced back to other people, whether they are family members (such as your partner preparing your favourite meal) or strangers (the postman delivering your mail, farmers producing the foods that will be on your table, etc.).
When we think about how other people improve and bring pleasure to our lives, our appreciation for them increases naturally. Noticing the small things and how they came about can be a real eye-opener. It helps us feel more interconnected, part of the whole, and in unity with the world that surrounds the people in it and us. The result: we are less likely to feel lonely or isolated and more likely to live meaningful lives.
The link between conscious gratefulness and stronger or more fulfilling relationships is not just subjective:
Researchers at the University of Manchester have established that gratitude influences our perception of social support, encourages reciprocity, and helps create a more supportive environment.
2. Higher Cognitive Functioning
Gratitude has also been shown to have the potential to turn us into better functioning individuals, and science leaves little room for doubt about this. For example, Dr Christina M. Karns carried out extensive research into the neurological aspects of gratitude. Her findings (which you can learn about here, especially in the second half of video) revealed that brain imaging scans show how practising gratitude activates two areas of the brain that are responsible for processing information for decision-making purposes.
This has been confirmed by studies at other universities, which showed that grateful individuals were more likely to be patient in receiving rewards and made better decisions in the long term, whereas individuals who were not feeling grateful when faced with a choice preferred immediate rewards even if those were not as beneficial. Researchers concluded that there is a connection between gratefulness and self-control. Combined, these two virtues can help us become more rational and focused when making decisions.
Even better, research at two US universities shows that feeling grateful releases dopamine, a molecule that keeps neurons functioning and that according to Science Daily, can increase motivation and energy levels. Gratitude practices like letter writing or journaling were also shown to help people achieve their goals more consistently, and this only makes sense. Consciously and intentionally set aside some time to reflect on the reasons we have to feel grateful sets a precedent for analytical thinking, which can then be extended to other aspects of our lives.
3. Happier And More Positive Emotions
When being grateful becomes an integral part of who we are, savouring the little pleasures in life becomes an essential part of our day-to-day routine. And the more grateful we feel, the more enjoyment we can get out of life. This is more than just a hypothesis. A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that gratitude is strongly related to other positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of agency or control, and hope. At the same time, the study found an unlikely correlation between the feeling of gratefulness and negative emotions, such as depression, envy, and anxiety.
From a science point of view, our brains have a built-in negativity bias that makes us more likely to remember bad experiences than good ones. This happens because negative events trigger an adrenaline rush that engraves negative feelings and memories in the brain, but the good news is that a gratitude practice can help re-wire our brains to overcome this bias. Research findings show that gratitude makes us more resilient and gives us reasons to be happy even in difficult times, establishing a link between gratefulness and the ability to cope better with problems and stress. Other studies found that people suffering from depressive symptoms reported a 35% reduction in their symptoms after starting a thoughtful gratitude practice.
It is interesting to note that gratefulness seems to have a cumulative effect, as participants reported that happiness levels kept increasing over time.
When all the benefits discussed so far are taken into consideration, it is evident that following a gratitude practice is an excellent way of boosting our opportunities for self-growth and personal development. In fact, bringing gratefulness into our lives can transform our personalities for the better. Scientific studies conducted in 2010 suggested that this emotion serves as an intermediary between positive personality traits and well-being, especially when it comes to areas like self-acceptance, purpose in life, openness to others, and autonomy. The beauty of this is that there is no way of predicting where a gratitude practice will take you, as adopting gratefulness is like going on a journey of personal discovery.
5. Better Overall Health
Grateful living has benefits that we can experience at a physical level too. Dr Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, is a well-known expert in the science of gratefulness who affirms that gratitude can be beneficial to our bodies and improve our overall well-being. The research carried out by Dr Emmons, and his team highlighted the mind-body connection and showed that grateful individuals tend to be more aware of how their lifestyle choices affect their health. For example, being thankful for how good exercise make us feel is likely to keep us motivated to work out frequently, and in turn, regular activity is linked to a stronger immune system, lower cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure.
On that note, practising gratefulness appears to be good for our hearts too, and quite literally so. Scientists at the University of California – San Diego examined people who were at high risk of experiencing heart disease and who also kept a gratefulness journal and found that their symptoms worsened at a slower rate than participants who didn’t follow the same practice. And in case that wasn’t good enough, feelings of gratefulness cause higher activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates sleep patterns, metabolism, and stress levels.
As you can see, the benefits of incorporate gratefulness practices into your daily life are enormous. Why not give it a try and experience first hand the transformative power of gratitude?