The Healing Benefits of Gratitude

As we prepare to gather and give thanks with our friends, families and communities for the holidays, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider how grateful we are simply for the opportunity to be grateful together. That’s because gratitude itself is a transformative act. 

Giving thanks for all that we have and everything we’ve been through, perceiving the intangible with a deep sense of awe and relishing in the “good stuff” is actually a process that is good for our mind, body and holistic health. And if we’re being honest, it’s probably been a while since we’ve had the good fortune to relish in the "good stuff."

This holiday season may be the first time that many people will be able to visit, travel and enjoy time with loved ones due to the ongoing pandemic that began almost two years ago. And since giving thanks has the underrated power to improve happiness and potentially change the way our minds and bodies work, we wanted to learn how to tap into it. Join us in unlocking the healing benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude, first. Happiness, second.

Scientists and psychologists are always studying happy people to discover what exactly makes them tick. After all, life’s challenges affect us all, right? But, happy people seem to be more resilient, more adept at handling life’s setbacks and seemingly, more grateful. It turns out there is an inverse relationship between happiness and gratitude. This counterintuitive approach to the happiness/gratitude relationship goes something like this: in order to be truly happy, we have to learn to be grateful for being happy, first. It’s even been said, “It is not happiness that brings us gratitude. It is gratitude that brings us happiness.” Gratitude even impacts the limbic system, which it turns out, controls our emotional responses. When compared to controlled groups, patients asked to focus on gratitude showed positive impacts on their emotional and psychological responses. And in addition to higher levels of self-love and empathy reported by patients, gratitude was shown to impact the way the body reacts to psychological conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.  

The Healing Power of Gratitude

Gratitude has helped people increase resilience and (according to research) even helps some cancer patients cope, as seen through physically measurable responses such as lowered blood pressure and increased immunity. But gratitude shouldn’t be confused with always having a sunny outlook or ignoring a difficult situation. In fact, gratitude has more to do with acceptance than many people give it credit for. Giving thanks for what we do have is like flexing in the face of adversity. It’s counting our blessings — something psychologists refer to as situation reframing. However we choose to do it (praying, writing, meditating, journaling), there’s real power in it. One study showed that people who actively cultivated gratitude reported fewer aches and pains and had greater overall health. Plus, gratitude has been shown to improve mental health, sleep habits and psychological wellness. It may also improve our ability to master this year’s contribution to the family dinner (although we couldn’t find a scientific source on this claim). 

The Gratitude ‘Flex’

Speaking of ‘flexing in the face of adversity,’ practicing gratitude is just like learning any other skill. While it may feel unnatural at first, gratefulness skills such as letter writing, journaling and even quiet reflection can become second nature. Our brains’ natural neuroplasticity allows us to develop skills that are good for it. However, it is this very plasticity that has likely caused many of us to rewire our thoughts into a mess of anxiety, fear, and fight or flight. This is particularly true if we have been through anything traumatic, medical treatments and unreasonable stresses — which further validates the need to build our gratitude muscles. Even if it takes us a while to get there. 

Just one year ago, we marked the beginning of the holiday season with distance, separation and longing for normalcy. Gratitude, in the face of uncertainty that year, was a collective choice — an action we had to take. Even though we're still facing the unknown, this year we're pausing to acknowledge how far we've come and how much we truly have to be grateful for.