The research and reach of appreciation
Deena Kara Shaffer
More than simply a glass-half-full attitude, the impacts of gratitude are rich and far-reaching. From enhanced physical and mental health, to improved sleep and lowered stress, to amplified connectedness and life satisfaction, research makes clear the very real impacts of deepening one’s sense of thankfulness. Read on to learn about the research, and range of benefits, of consciously cultivating more gratitude
For Linda Graham, California-based psychotherapist, mindful self-compassion teacher, and author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster (New World Library, 2018), gratitude is an “embodied, felt experience of thankfulness for life’s blessings, which opens our hearts and expands our consciousness.”
For Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist and scholar-in-residence for positive psychology and creator of the nationally recognized ThriveRU resilience program at Toronto’s Ryerson University, gratitude is noticing “the good things in your life, and intentionally acknowledging them. Sometimes, it manifests as being thankful for something that has happened; other times it is a deep appreciation of beauty, art, or nature.”
Brecher adds, “Feeling gratitude for someone can feel particularly positive, as it is accompanied with a sense of worthiness for what we have received from that person, and this feeling of worth is a wellspring of contentment and well-being.”
Researchers phrase gratefulness as a broad and positive orientation toward recognizing and appreciating what’s good in the world, a counting of blessings, and a perspective that highlights life’s gifts.
Data indicate that with gratitude comes greater physical health and overall vitality. But that’s not all. Gratefulness leads to less anxiety, a strong sense of self-efficacy or empowerment, self-regulation of emotions, thoughtfulness toward others, and hopefulness.
Gratitude is one type of positive effect; it is also one type of what’s called a “healthy adaptive response.” This means that in the face of upsetting, stressful, and outright challenging situations, gratitude can help us experience greater contentment, overall health, nourishing relationships, ease, and hopefulness about the future.
Studies show that the positive perspective that comes from practising gratitude corresponds to buoyed psychological health, upped likelihood to seek support for health concerns, and an inclination to participate in healthy activities.
“Gratitude as ‘thank you’ expressed too often can sometimes engender a degree of cynicism in others,” explains Brecher. “Gratitude is most powerful when it is expressed with authenticity and experienced as real and personal.”
“People can get confused about what makes them happy,” notes Graham. “We can be grateful for temporary pleasures; a steady gratitude practice will help us become aware of the deeper, truer causes of happiness. The gratitude itself becomes deeper and more sophisticated.”
Graham says, “Gratitude is one of the many positive emotion practices—alongside kindness, compassion, awe, delight, joy, and serenity—that have been shown to shift the functioning of the brain out of negativity, contraction, and reactivity and into receptivity, openness to learning, optimism, and seeing the bigger picture.”
“A direct, measurable, cause-and-effect outcome of gratitude is resilience,” adds Graham, “that in turn leads to more creativity, productivity, cognitive flexibility, and goal-directed problem-solving. And studies show that people who have a sustained daily practice of gratitude experience less anxiety, less depression, less stress, and less loneliness.”
To ensure survival, explains Brecher, we have an in-built bias to notice what is wrong and how to go about fixing it. The cost of this can be a minimizing of the good things happening around us, because they don’t demand our attention in the same way.
And yet, Brecher makes clear, “What we spend our time thinking about is often what determines our mood, our positive expectations, our sense of optimism, and our joy. We are less likely to feel good if our attention focuses on what is going wrong. Gratitude helps us see what is right with our lives, and to savour it.”
Graham adds, “If someone is caught in negativity, they may be missing out on the positive experiences that could function as inner resources for their well-being. Cultivating a practice of noticing the good and opening to appreciation helps our brains shift out of the innate, automatic negativity bias and into an optimistic perspective.”
The benefits of gratitude abound. As Graham points out, practising gratitude leads to “better sleep, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and an elongated life expectancy of seven to nine years on average.”
Gratitude affects our individual day-to-day, but it also has widespread ripples. “When we are grateful for the people in our lives,” Brecher explains, “it warms our hearts, helps us feel worthy, engenders a sense of hope and positive expectation that these good relationships will last, and deepens our sense of connection to the important people in our lives.”
“Because people who practice gratitude tend to be more open and friendly to life in general,” Graham points out, “other people experience them as more open and friendly. Gratitude then helps people form more collaborative relationships, gain more social support, and deepen friendships.”
“People often focus a gratitude practice on people and possessions, as well as processes like eating, walking, and dancing, for which they are grateful,” explains Graham. “But over time, a steady gratitude practice shifts our taking anything for granted to taking things as granted—blessings from life itself, whether we merit them or not. Gratitude expands our engagement from the personal to life itself.”
Linda Graham, California-based psychotherapist, mindful self-compassion teacher, and author, offers some ways to practise gratitude.
Gratitude pictures Take photos on a cellphone of things you are grateful for as you go throughout the day.
Gratitude buddy Share experiences of appreciation with a “gratitude buddy” by email, text, or phone every day.
Gratitude at dinner Express moments of gratitude around the family dinner table.
Gratitude roses Bring nuance to your gratitude by practising rose-thorn-bud: rose representing something you’re grateful for; the thorn, something hard or unpleasant; and bud, your hopes for tomorrow.
Gratitude journal Each day, journal three bad things that didn’t happen—a cheque that didn’t bounce, your car that didn’t get dinged in a parking lot, or you didn’t come down with a cold after all.
Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist and scholar-in-residence for positive psychology and creator of ThriveRU resilience program at Toronto’s Ryerson University, shares some insights into why we should cultivate gratitude.
Positively impacts symptoms of depression The practice of gratitude can have a positive impact on symptoms of depression and despair because it guides focus to what is right with the world instead of only seeing what is wrong with it.
Fosters resilience Gratitude and optimism, essential components of resilience, reinforce each other because the positive expectation associated with optimism is often fueled by noticing the good things that are happening in our lives.
Increases sense of well-being Writing a letter of gratitude to someone for whom you feel thankful can increase a sense of well-being for many weeks following.
Creates balance We can train our brains to notice, more and more, the good things in our lives, thereby fighting the negativity bias and creating a more balanced view of the world.
Improves sleep Before bed, when we bring to mind three good things that happened during our day, it can be easier to fall asleep and enjoy better dreams.
To learn more about gratitude and the act of hedonic adaptation, visit alive.com/webexclusive