From reduced stress to greater happiness, gratitude is good for us – in more ways than we realise
Last year, a group of American psychologists conducted a study to find out how gratitude impacts our sense of wellbeing. First, they had to decide how to measure it.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the psychologists divided participants into three groups. One group was asked to write a list of things they were grateful for. Others were asked to write a daily list of whatever irritated or displeased them. The third group was asked simply to note down whatever affected them, whether positive or negative.
After 10 weeks, those who had kept a gratitude list had a more positive outlook than those who had kept a tally of their grievances. They were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also looked after themselves better, doing more exercise and needing to see a doctor less.
The benefit of saying thank you
Martin Seligman, renowned for his work in positive psychology, has spent his life analysing why happy people are happy. Last year, he looked specifically at whether positive acts can make you feel happier.
One week, he asked his participants to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had never properly been thanked for an act of kindness in the past. Not only did they have to write to this person, but they also had to deliver the letter themselves.
Seligman asked his participants to do all kinds of other things for this study. But it was delivering such a letter of gratitude, in person, that increased people’s happiness scores right away. The effects were enduring. They felt happier for a whole month.
Gratitude and physical health
Scientists have also proved that gratitude has physical benefits, as well as emotional ones. Last year, American psychologists used a mobile phone app to track what happens to the bodies of those who practise gratitude. According to Psychology Today, they found that gratitude and bodily health measures were closely linked.
They discovered that gratitude, which also makes you feel more optimistic, lowers your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, inspires you to exercise more and reduces stress. You sleep better, too.
In Buddhism, many monks and lay practitioners begin their day with a gratitude meditation. Gratitude helps develop patience. Kshanti – patience or forbearance – is one of the qualities that Buddhists cultivate.
Psychologists have validated the gratitude-patience link. People with a strong sense of gratitude are more likely to delay the impulse for instant gratification which could often lead to negative emotions and actions.
Gratitude also cultivates acceptance. It helps us in appreciating what we have and who we are in the present, rather than in competition with what we could have been. It helps us overcome the fear of scarcity and the unknown.
Gratitude is the source of positive emotions such as acceptance, being non-judgemental and compassion. It is the natural antidote for greed, jealousy, competition, resentment and many other negative emotions.
Becoming more grateful
One way of cultivating gratitude is to make a daily gratitude list.
In his book Gratitude, the neurologist Oliver Sacks made his own gratitude list. He wrote: “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld said: “Being grateful for not only life’s blessings, but also its sufferings is a key component of living a spiritual life.”
Gratitude is a state of mind, distinct from external conditions. It’s the key to finding contentment and peace. Living in gratitude helps us find joy and transform negative emotions so we are in harmony with both ourselves and the world.