This Is How Intentional Gratitude Affects Your Body and Mind
Because giving thanks shouldn't be restricted to just one day a year.
It’s the season for giving thanks, at least as far as endless Instagram captions, holiday greeting card slogans, and advertising campaigns tell us. During this time of year, there’s always an increased focus (and sometimes pressure) to be grateful—but it’s easy to say that we’re thankful without actually putting much intention behind the sentiment. But with or without Thanksgiving and the holiday season to inspire us, gratitude is something that can be incorporated into our everyday lives—and doing so can have a huge impact on our mental health.
"Gratitude is truly one of the biggest contributors to increased happiness," author and therapist Dr. Lauren Cook, who specializes in positive psychology, tells HelloGiggles—and various research on gratitude would say the same. A group of researchers from the Greater Good Science Center conducted a 2016 study involving nearly 300 adults—mostly college students who were seeking mental health counseling at a university—randomly assigned into three groups. All three groups received counseling, but the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, the second group was asked to write about their negative experiences, and the third didn't do any writing activity. The researchers found that, "compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health [in] four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended."
Research has also indicated that gratitude can have a positive impact on physical health, with a 2005 study showing that those who wrote in a gratitude journal experienced less stress and improved quality of sleep. Another 2015 study focused on 185 individuals with heart health issues and found that those with generally more grateful mindsets also reported "better sleep, less fatigue, less depression, more confidence in their ability to care for themselves, and lower levels of systemic inflammation (an immune response that can have negative effects on the body, including the cardiovascular system)."
But while knowing that gratitude is good for your mind and body is one thing, actually practicing it is another. So, we asked Dr. Cook and board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Seide—who specializes in depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, and PTSD—to give us some pointers.
Below, learn some of the ways that you can incorporate gratitude into your everyday life—and what to keep in mind as you do.
How to Practice Gratitude in Your Everyday Life:
1. Make gratitude a daily priority.
To experience the benefits of gratitude, you have to make a commitment to tuning into things that you're grateful for every single day. However, in 2020—with an ongoing pandemic, economic crisis, and upsetting events on the news every day—this is a lot easier said than done. "There's almost like this pervasive despair that just seems to be in the air," Dr. Seide acknowledges—but that doesn't mean there's no hope. "A person in that environment, like we all are currently, has to work a bit harder on staying grounded and not letting all of their attention be sucked up by what is not going well," she adds.
Instead, we should try to be on the lookout for things in our environment that we can be grateful for. Some of the easy places to look to include your family, friends, shelter, health, and financial stability—but we can also benefit from zooming in on the smaller details, too. "People can be grateful for so many things, including the way a person makes you feel, the sensations you experience throughout life—sight, sound, touch, taste, smell—and the experiences you've had," Dr. Cook says.
"When you're constantly putting value on what you do have, however simple it may be, that is basically a way of holding onto a good amount of emotional stability, wellness, and joy in your life," Dr. Seide says.
2. Start journaling.
Journaling is a great way to hold yourself accountable to an everyday gratitude practice. Dr. Cook specifically recommends The Five Minute Journal and the Cultivate What Matters planner to help guide you, but simply writing down what you're grateful for in a standard blank journal can work just as well.
For a bit more structure, Dr. Cook recommends writing down five daily gratitudes—five things that happened in the past 24 hours that you're thankful for—either in the morning when you wake up or at night before bed. "Challenge yourself to find different things each time, noticing the smaller details rather than just the big-ticket items," she says.
Dr. Seide says that the longer you keep a gratitude journal, the better you'll get at noticing things around you to be thankful for, like a cool breeze on a walk, a joke that made you laugh, or a warm interaction with a barista.
3. Take a picture (it'll last longer).
To put even more intention into your gratitude practice, Dr. Cook recommends photographing the moments where you're feeling grateful. Whether this is a selfie after something made you smile or a beautiful landscape you notice outside, taking a picture "can really help bring you into the present moment," she says.
4. Pay attention to your body.
Dr. Cook explains that gratitude isn't only experienced in the mind but can also be felt in the body. While you're tuning into the environment around you, try to also pay attention to the sensations of your body. "So, when do you feel a lightness in your body or a smile come upon your face? Noticing these moments of joy and challenging yourself to feel it deeply allows you to tap into intentional gratitude," she explains.
5. Share gratitude with others—but don't force it onto them.
As you start to practice gratitude and see the benefits, you may want to encourage others to do the same, but it's important to remember that, as Dr. Seide says, "gratitude is not something that you [can] force upon another person." Doing so can be more harmful than helpful, especially if you're telling the person to just "be thankful" in a time of crisis, since this can be a form of toxic positivity and can invalidate the more difficult emotions that that person may be working through.
"Instead, challenge yourself to see gratitude as a deeply personal exercise that is not for public show or recognition," Dr. Cook says. This way, you can have access to a more genuine form of gratitude that isn't just about trying to appear or encourage others to be happy but rather a deeper form of personal growth and self-care.
However, this doesn't mean you have to go at it completely alone. You can bring loved ones into your gratitude practices by telling them how grateful you are for them or something they've done. "It's a vulnerable experience to express gratitude but a profoundly meaningful one if you're willing to engage in it," Dr. Cook says. When you express gratitude to someone else, this can encourage them to start doing the same, which can be mutually beneficial for any type of relationship—whether that's with a family member, friend, or significant other.
As Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, a certified psychiatric counselor, writes on PositivePsychology.com, "When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’...making us feel happy from the inside." So it's a win-win all around.
6. Allow yourself to feel a multitude of emotions.
Just as you shouldn't force gratitude onto someone else, you shouldn't force it onto yourself either. This means that when you're going through something difficult, gratitude shouldn't be something you use to push aside those less pleasant emotions but, instead, something that can coexist alongside the struggle. Allowing yourself to fully feel that sadness, anger, grief, or whatever other emotion you may be experiencing while also continuing your gratitude practice is completely okay. "Appreciating whatever is going on in your day does not negate or invalidate another feeling that you have," Dr. Seide asserts. Dr. Cook adds that practicing gratitude while going through another personal struggle can "serve as a way to make meaning of your pain" and "help you expand your perspective on it."
Similarly, practicing gratitude for things in your current life can coexist with setting future goals—and you don't have to feel guilty for that. "Being grateful for what you have and being ambitious and wanting more than what you have are not opposing ideas," Dr. Seide says.
Giving yourself the space to acknowledge and experience a multitude of emotions is a way to treat yourself with compassion, Dr. Seide explains, and holding space for gratitude in a way that is intentional and not forced does the same.