Gratitude means different things to different people. I define it as a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation. The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace or gracefulness. Over the past decade, it has a become a buzzword in the wellness community.
And for good reason. A growing body of groundbreaking research shows the power of gratitude to heal and transform our lives. Time and time again, studies have shown that practicing gratitude on a consistent basis can reduce depression, increase willpower and improve focus.
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
One study looked at the effects of gratitude on the mental health and adherence to medical recommendations (exercise and medications) following a heart attack. It showed positive results for both factors. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. among men and women. It’s also an enormous cost to our healthcare system with repeat hospital admissions, procedures and medications.
Another study looked at gratitude writing in psychotherapy patients in a randomized controlled trial. They had 3 groups—therapy only, therapy + expressive writing (sharing deepest thoughts and stressful experiences), and therapy + gratitude writing (letters to others). Participants in the gratitude writing group showed significantly better mental health than the other two groups.
This doesn’t mean you can fire your therapist. The key is that gratitude can enhance your mood and is something you can continue after your insurance stops paying for those therapy sessions. The results of the previous study also highlights that your mood follows your thoughts. When you focus on more positive thoughts your mood naturally lightens.
A regular gratitude practice can have cognitive benefits as well with the ability to improve focus in the classroom. One study of 110 college students showed that practicing gratitude improves a student’s ability to focus in class and remain resilient when learning difficulties present themselves. They received text message reminders every 4-5 days for 3 months. These reminders helped them to stay focus.
Whether it’s a text message, gratitude app or journaling—find what works best for you.
In my own life I’ve used different techniques to express gratitude through morning meditation, keeping a bowl of pretty paper and writing down daily what I’m thankful for (it’s a wonderful practice to read them at the end of each month and at the end of the year for reflection), a gratitude app on my phone so I could practice anywhere, and current practice, a bullet journal with one entry a day focused on gratitude.
Exactly why does it work though? My curious nature begged to ask this question. Researchers have found that the stronger the feelings of gratitude, the more activity we have in the frontal, parietal and occipital regions of the brain. The activity in these neural patterns were distinct from other positive feelings like empathy. Gratitude is a unique emotion with long-lasting effects. The more you practice, the more it builds on itself—and your brain adapts to a grateful mindset in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Finding something that works for you is key and it’s okay to switch it up! The most important thing is to actually do it to reap all the benefits, just like eating right and taking your daily dose of vitamins to be at optimal levels. Try any or all of these four simple, easy to follow exercises that can enhance your daily gratitude practice:
- Mindfulness meditation. Focusing on the present moment can bring about a sense of peace and inner calm. Try to focus on something you are grateful for during this time like the sun shining on your skin or the smile from a stranger.
- Write a thank you card. Putting into words how someone has positively affected your life can make you happier and nurture your relationship with that person.
- Thank someone verbally. If you don’t have time to write an actual letter, send a text or leave a voicemail with grateful sentiments.
- Pray. Prayer can be a powerful way to express gratitude either alone or with a group.
Photography by Autumn Beury
About Dr. Tiffany Lester
Dr. Tiffany Lester is an integrative medicine doctor, farmacy foodie and curly girl who believes we all have the ability to take charge of our health. Often we just need a bridge to reach that other side. She has been that bridge for hundreds of patients as Medical Director of Parsley Health San Francisco—a groundbreaking, membership-based medical practice that is the future of primary care medicine. She is passionate about healing chronic disease through whole foods and teaching people how simple, small shifts can have an enormous impact on their fatigue, stress, and pain levels. A good nights sleep is non-negotiable for this doctor yet millions of people suffer from some type of insomnia unnecessarily. As the creator of The Unconscious Workout—a HIIT workout for sleep—she guides people on how to sleep smarter, not longer.