Using Expression of Gratitude as a Path to Well-Being

On: September 13, 2016

By Pamela Leland, PhD

Here at The Hickman, we begin our weekly staff meetings with a time to express gratitude. The topics that people cover can vary widely – from appreciation for a co-worker to a work project that has gone well to a fun weekend event to good news on a medical test. There are no rules about what one can be grateful for. It is simply our, maybe meager, attempt to cultivate a sense of gratitude in ourselves and in us as a work team.

I wish that I could say that we always find it easy to express gratitude. Some weeks there is more silence than words. Some weeks we have to remind one another that we all have much to be grateful for. Some weeks, feelings of cynicism seem to over-shadow the gratitude that others have expressed. But we press on … largely because I am convinced by my own experience that gratitude fosters greater well-being.

And I’ve got science that proves it.

While Positive Psychology as a modern field of study has more recently furthered research on gratitude, the idea that gratitude plays an integral role in health and well-being is nothing new. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC-Davis and a national expert on gratitude, notes that throughout history philosophers and religious leaders have identified the many benefits of gratitude and, thus, encouraged others to embrace it as a virtue.

There is now a growing body of research that demonstrates the positive benefits of gratitude. For example, gratitude is linked to stronger and more positive relationships.  Whether couples in a committed relationship or colleagues at work, expressing gratitude for the other person resulted in more positive feelings for the other person and more motivation to invest in the relationship.

Grateful people tend to be more optimistic – a characteristic that not only has been proven to boost the immune system, but has been shown to result in better health outcomes in people who had surgery.

Feelings of gratitude are also linked to our ability to manage stress.  It is commonly acknowledged that stress, poorly managed, can have significant negative health consequences, including heart disease and cancer. Evidence suggests that feelings of gratitude have a significant positive influence in helping people cope with day-to-day problems and, therefore, limit the amount of stress that is carried around, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Finally research has demonstrated that someone’s level of gratitude is correlated to the degree to which he or she engages in more positive health behaviors. These behaviors, e.g., exercise, a healthy diet and preventive healthcare, are linked to more beneficial health status overall.

Gratitude is not an innate quality.  In today’s culture of sarcasm and cynicism, we sometimes have to search for, and grab hold of, gratitude and optimism.  The good news is that we can cultivate it more deeply in ourselves. Here are some ideas that have proven effective:

Make a list of those things you are grateful for – whatever that might be.  In other words, count your blessings!  Review the list regularly. Add to it.

Practice more positive self-talk.  Be intentionally optimistic – even in a negative situation. Take something negative and look for the possibilities for growth and unintended benefits.

Keep a gratitude journal.  Emmons’ research found that those who kept a gratitude journal at least weekly had fewer physical problems, felt better about their lives and had more optimism about the future.

Write a thank you note to someone… expressing your appreciation for something specific they might have done for you or simply expressing gratitude for their friendship.

Positive Psychology blogger and life coach Amit Amin reviewed relevant research and identified 31 unique benefits of gratitude. These benefits occur across five dimensions of Well-Being – emotional, social, physical, career and spiritual. The ultimate benefit, however, is happiness. A deeper sense of gratitude leads to a greater sense of happiness and well-being.  This is a powerful message at any age … and an invitation to us all.