When I was growing up, my parents constantly reminded my brothers and me to say, “Thank you.” It became so automatic that I didn’t appreciate what it meant. I thought it was their way of teaching us good manners. However, as I grew older, I understood the significance of these words. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and expressing gratitude was part of their code of conduct. After surviving the dark inhumanity of the Auschwitz death camp, they were grateful for everything life had to offer, both big and small, especially their relationships.
My parents’ lives were enriched by their relationships with their families, friends and communities. It gave meaning and purpose to them and enhanced their well-being. Their desire to form attachments after the war, to marry and give birth to a new generation, demonstrates their commitment to life and hope for the future. My parents’ love of family became part of their legacy that I passed on to my children, and I feel proud and grateful they are continuing this value within their own families.
Why is gratitude gaining traction today?
Today, more than ever, we need coping strategies. Many of us Baby Boomers are a catalyst for social change, having participated in the peace, women’s and environmental movements of the 1960s and beyond. These issues are still relevant, and new generations of socially conscious people are rallying around global problems. Intent on creating a better world, some of us are affected emotionally by the global state of affairs. The news media bombard us everyday with stories of mass shootings, political divisiveness, natural disasters, climate change and trade wars. These environmental factors, coupled with personal challenges, may have a negative impact on our well-being.
Gratitude helps me to cope with these difficult times by grounding me in the present moment and appreciating what’s good. I begin each morning with a gratitude prayer and give thanks for the blessings in my life, such as my health, my grandchildren’s hugs, a walk outdoors, the sunshine on my face, a get-together with friends, a delicious meal and so on.
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
– Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher, author
Benefits of gratitude
In the last decade there has been an explosion of evidence-based research into the benefits of gratitude. According to psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, a person who practices gratitude can cope more effectively with stress, may show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, may recover more quickly from illness and benefit from better physical health.
Researchers at the universities of Utah and Kentucky have observed that being thankful could boost immune antibodies that protect against bacteria and viruses. Another study, at University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine, found that people who were more grateful had better heart health, less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.
Gratitude deepens our relationships. Emmons sees gratitude as “a relationship-strengthening emotion” because it helps us to acknowledge and appreciate the people in our lives who value and support us. It also improves our self-esteem when we internalize feeling valued and respected. Every time I receive a compliment or a meaningful thank you, my heart opens wide and I feel closer to the person giving it. It also makes me feel happy. Writing about this topic makes me realize how important it is to express appreciation to my family and friends and not take them for granted. Instead of a quick thank you, I now make it a point to be specific about their actions and let them know that I appreciate and value what they did. The more I do this, the more I deepen intimacy and increase joy in my life.
How does gratitude work?
Dr. Emmons believes that “gratitude works because it allows individuals to celebrate the present and be an active participant in their own lives.” When we value and appreciate ourselves, friends, situations and circumstances, it focuses our minds on what we already have rather than something that’s missing.
Being thankful has a profound effect because of the feelings that accompany it. Research shows that our thankful thoughts trigger the parasympathetic or calming part of our nervous system that decreases cortisol stress levels and increases oxytocin, the body’s “feel-good” hormones.
Strategies to develop a gratitude mindset
Making gratitude a habit requires commitment. Fortunately, there are simple gratitude practices that don’t take much time or effort. Begin with the suggestions below and build on them.
1. Appreciate yourself.
- Improve your self-esteem by valuing, accepting and respecting yourself. Feel the power of phrases such as “I can,” “I know,” and “I have value.” If you see yourself as capable and competent, others will see you the same way.
- Throughout the day, give yourself positive messages: “I appreciate my body’s ability to heal and be healthy”; “I appreciate myself for being a good person.”
2. Express gratitude to others.
- Express gratitude to your family, friends and colleagues. When people feel valued, respected and appreciated it makes them feel better about themselves. It can be uplifting for us, too. In the workplace, it improves job satisfaction and productivity.
- Write a letter, thank-you note or email to someone who has helped you. Be specific about their actions.
3. Give thanks.
- Start a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, write down three things for which you are grateful. Turn to this list whenever you are feeling down.
- Develop a vocabulary of gratefulness because what you say influences how you think and what you do: “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, kindness and support.”
- Meditate on thoughts of gratitude, creating peace and joy.
- Give thanks at the beginning of meals.
We can integrate gratitude into our lives at any time. Even appreciating simple pleasures helps. Experts agree that being grateful makes us more resilient, healthier and happier people.
Thank you for reading this article!
Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons, PhD. Outlines strategies for cultivating thankfulness and talks about his research on gratitude’s effects.
Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul by Robert Emmons and Joanna Hill. Inspires you to live a gratitude-filled life.
A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life by John Kralik. A roadmap for cultivating gratitude.
What Good Is Gratitude? Video by Robert Emmons, Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
A Good Day with Brother David Steindl-Rast. A video of the day as a gift.
TED talk: “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful” by Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Gratitude Resources for the Classroom. Video of creative gratitude resources that can be used with students.
This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine.