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The Season of Gratitude

When we think of gratitude, it can be easy to boil it down to simply saying “thank you,” but the act of gratitude is truly a skill we can hone that not only benefits those around us, but also our own mental health. As we enter the holiday season, practicing gratitude can help us tap into what really is important in life, manage our stress, and enter the next year with balance.

What does it mean to practice gratitude?

The act of practicing gratitude is closely linked with mindfulness and is characterized by focusing on the positive things in your life. This includes things big and small—for example, one might sit quietly and take the time to be grateful for having a solid roof over your head as well as stopping to appreciate the notes of florals and vanilla in your daily cup of tea.

Practicing gratitude does not mean avoiding all dark or challenging thoughts or adopting a strict Pollyanna perspective. It means you consciously take time out of your day to appreciate your blessings and give thanks (to others or even just to yourself) for the good things in life.

What are the mental and physical benefits of practicing gratitude?

Studies show that you reap the greatest health benefits from practicing gratitude when it becomes a solid part of your daily routine. Some of these benefits include:

  • Reducing anxiety and depression:
    • A review published in the ClinMed International Library of 70 studies that include responses from more than 26,000 people found an association between higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of depression.
    • Anxiety is often typified by overthinking things that have already happened or may occur in the future. It’s easy to get stuck in a “loop” of worry when we’re anxious, and shifting our focus to gratitude can ground us in the present and redirect our attention to what is actually occurring now.
  • Improving sleep:
    • Regularly practicing gratitude compels us to continually strive to make better choices. This may result in eating better and being more physically active, both of which promote healthier sleep.
    • Engaging in active gratitude before bed can also calm and soothe us, break the negative anxiety cycle, and help us to get to sleep faster and more soundly.
  • Managing stress:
    • Have you ever noticed when you’re stressed or anxious that your heart beats faster and you feel physically on edge? This is because stress releases an excess of cortisol and adrenaline and triggers a fight-or-flight response. This is tough on your heart muscles, not to mention feels mentally and physically unpleasant.
    • Taking a moment to pause and give thanks causes physiological changes in our bodies that initiate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your nervous system that helps you rest and digest. Gratitude and the response it causes help to bring down our blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
  • Supporting heart health:
    • Many benefits of gratitude also support heart health. Improving depression symptoms, sleep, diet, and exercise all reduce the risk of heart disease. Several studies show that a grateful mindset positively affects biomarkers associated with the risk for heart disease.
    • A 2021 review of research also finds that keeping a gratitude journal can cause a significant drop in diastolic blood pressure. Having grateful thoughts, whether you write them down or not, also helps your heart by slowing and regulating your breathing to synchronize with your heartbeat.

How does one practice gratitude?

The easiest way to begin practicing gratitude is to set aside 15 minutes per day to be grateful. Other tips include:

  • Set a consistent gratitude schedule: Time this for whenever feels best to you and that you can do consistently. For example, if you’re an early riser, you may choose to start your day with gratitude when you get up. Other people may prefer midday once they’ve gotten through some tasks and are going to dive into more after lunch. For those who struggle with falling or staying asleep, practicing gratitude before bed may be the most beneficial.
  • Record your gratitude: Writing down or journaling your gratitude is also helpful, as doing so can keep your mind focused. You can also go back and reread what you gave thanks for as a reminder to share your thoughts with someone who did something for you, plunk inspiration when you’re struggling with your practice, or simply hold yourself accountable.
  • Be specific: Many of us find ourselves saying, “Thanks!” to someone and leave it at that. Next time, take an extra moment to genuinely say thank you for the distinct thoughts or actions someone extended to you. Not only will you feel more grateful (and subsequently more grounded), but you will also connect more thoroughly with someone else and help them to feel good, too.
  • Redirect negative energy: In addition to the 15 or more minutes you devote solely to gratitude each day, challenge yourself to work through frustrations by acknowledging the positive things also at play. For example, one might think and say to themselves, “I feel overwhelmed by my health condition today, but I am grateful to have a supportive friend who always picks up the phone when I need them. I give myself the grace and permission to feel disappointed by my limitations today without letting them sour my whole week.”
  • Keep it up! The more often and consistently you practice gratitude, the easier it becomes. In the beginning, you may feel it is a chore to sit for 15 minutes to be thankful, but it will become a habit over time. You just might find yourself practicing gratitude so naturally throughout the day that you no longer need to set aside time specifically for that because you are doing it without thinking.