A few years ago, after chatting about our careers, the person sitting next to me on my flight asked me what my top three health recommendations were. In the years following I’ve reflected on this question and come to the conclusion that living with gratitude is one of the most important elements of good health.

What is gratitude?

The Oxford Dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” This definition connects the experience of thankfulness with the subsequent action of returning kindness. We’ve all experienced this positive feeling of thankfulness spontaneously when we receive a gift or are the recipient of a favour.
When this happens you might feel a warmth in the body or feel more grounded and secure. Perhaps you get the urge to smile or maybe even feel tears clouding your vision. We often describe this as something “welling up” inside and we express this feeling of abundance with kindness directed towards ourselves and others. In this way, gratitude is a cycle that spirals upward as it builds on itself: life provides us with a gift, we recognize that gift, experience gratitude and respond with a further gift of kindness.

In contrast, without gratitude, we more easily feel a sense of lacking or scarcity and this drives us, often subconsciously, to make decisions aimed at “getting more” or “filling the void.” Not only is this an unpleasant feeling, it usually discourages acts of kindness, tolerance and generosity.

Gratitude fosters a sense of well-being that empowers us to act out of our deeply held values instead of reacting to fear or insecurity and it is my belief that saturating our lives with gratitude not only helps us feel better but also strengthens our minds and our bodies.

 

How does gratitude change our health?

Practicing gratitude can have profound effects on our health. You’ve probably heard about the negative impact chronic stress has on long term health. Even in the absence of physical injury, chronic mental and emotional stress can cause physiological changes in the body. Through the study of psychoneuroendocrinology (that’s a real word!) we have a greater understanding of how perceived stress can chronically activate the fight-or-flight system (also called the sympathetic system) and how this can contribute to the degeneration of body systems over time. When activated, the sympathetic system suppresses functions (like  digestion, immune response, tissue repair) it deems not essential to your immediate survival and diverts resources to support fleeing or fighting. While this served our hunter gatherer ancestors well, constantly triggering this state with the stresses of modern life is not conducive to good health. What we need is a “switch” to turn “off” this sympathetic system and invite the body to relax and heal. Gratitude is this switch.

Gratitude helps to switch from the flight-or-flight system to the rest and digest (or parasympathetic) system and we can often feel this switch from wired and anxious to grounded and calm. The parasympathetic system promotes repair, recovery and rebalancing functions in the body.  Along with chronic stress studies have shown that prolonged feelings of loneliness or social isolation carry strong risk factors for mortality (3, 4). Gratitude is a powerful positive experience that melts away these negative feelings.  In short, gratitude feels good and builds physical, mental and emotional resilience.

“It’s gratefulness that makes you happy NOT the other way around” – Brother Steindl Rast

Why is it so hard to do?

Maybe you’re like me: I started the new year with a goal to practice gratitude every day. My goal was to write down two things I’m grateful for every night before bed. My last entry was January 11th.

My natural tendency is to worry about “what’s wrong” (with everything!), feel anxious about the things that “aren’t going my way”, immediately think about the things I don’t have (and then try to “fix” all these bad feelings – right before it’s time to sleep.) These reactions (although not pretty!) do serve to teach us about ourselves – particularly our fears and insecurities –  but they are not helpful for making healthy decisions about what to do next.

Our consumer culture isn’t helpful either. Marketing preys on these fears and insecurities by offering us solutions to that empty feeling of not having enough.

In our culture, feeling and expressing gratefulness may also be associated with weakness and indebtedness further discouraging some of us from cultivating gratitude.

So how do we start to saturate our lives with gratitude when we are surrounded by all these fears and anxieties? How can we feel grateful when we encounter the unacceptable in our lives? We can’t be grateful about the passing of a dear friend, the destruction of our marriage, or news of violence and oppression. The key is to not wait for all the unwanted things in our lives to be purged and instead recognize the potential for goodness in spite of those things.  Brother Steindl Rast, a monk who has been studying gratitude for decades says “Although we cannot be grateful for everything, we can be grateful for the opportunity in the moment.” This may be the opportunity to reflect on a great friendship, the opportunity to practice patience or the opportunity to challenge ourselves further.

So the practice for us is to regularly ask ourselves What is the opportunity in this moment?

In my experience, it takes more effort to recognize the “opportunity in each moment” than it is to embrace worry and anxiety. As with other health practices like healthy eating, practicing gratitude requires that we intentionally engage in practicing it. At first it can feel unnatural and awkward but like anything, with repeated practice we can turn it into a habit.  Practicing gratitude means inviting ourselves to turn as many moments as we can into positive health-promoting ones.

In my life, one of the most consistent examples of grateful living is my Dad. To learn more about how my Dad lives, you can read the blog post I wrote about him here.

Grateful living cultivates feelings of contentment with our lives  by helping us to see life as something imbued with abundance rather than scarcity. With that sense of fullness inside we build physical, mental and emotional resilience – in other words, we build health.

I would love to hear about your gratitude practices and things you have found helpful along the way.

If you’re curious about the two other health recommendations in my top three list be sure to check future blog posts in this space or sign up for our mailing list here.

In health,
Dr. Carin