Gratitude is a hot topic, especially during the holiday season. I think we take this word for granted and often feel ambivalent about the meaning. Many of us have been told since we were young to “be thankful for what we have”. We are reminded starting in November to “give thanks”. But, what does this really mean and how can it help our overall well-being?
Gratitude simply means an appreciation for what is valuable or meaningful. The value and meaning assigned to any one thing is personal and can change over time. General research in the field of psychology points to a correlation between gratitude and a positive sense of well-being. Well-being is likely the result of several mind-body changes.
One of these changes is a shift from negative emotionality to a focus on positive emotions. This means that expressing gratitude not only allows you to focus on the positive emotions you feel about yourself, others, and the world, but it shifts your thinking away from rumination on negative experiences. The strengths based perspective of psychology would say this is up regulating your positive emotions allowing you to experience those more often, while down regulating your negative emotions. Simply put – placing our attention and energy on positive emotions strengthens our ability to do this in the future.
Secondly, much of the neuroscience research points to the fact that when individuals report feeling grateful, the active area of the brain is the medial pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is also associated with the systems that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief. From a mindfulness perspective and yogic philosophy, this makes sense. Ruminating on past negative experiences would trigger the same physiological effects we experience during an active stress period. This means expressing gratitude is a practice in mindfulness. When we focus on what we are grateful for, it is a present moment thought. This helps us detach from the judgement of ourselves or others, release negatively held energies, and find acceptance for our current circumstances. This state of being has both mental and physical benefits for stress relief and overall health.
So, we may be inundated with reminders of gratitude through media, and it may seem too simple to be considered a coping skill; but, research now shows that your grandma’s reminder to be thankful may be just what we need for health and wellness. There is much more information and research about gratitude. This is just a small snapshot with some my own interpretations. Listed below are some resources for more information.
If you want to start a gratitude practice try a few of these strategies:
Sansone, R. A. and Sansone, L. A. Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010 Nov; 7(11): 18-22.
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