Gratitude and well-being: How giving thanks can rev up your health and happiness

Gratitude infographic

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You have got to be kidding me.”

That was how Jennifer Whaley, MD, remembers reacting when, as a young girl, her grandmother endeavored to teach her a lesson in gratitude.

“She tried to talk me into being grateful — for my younger sister! At the time, I thought, ‘yeah…that’ll never happen.’ It turns out my grandmother had a point.”

Wellness benefits of gratitude

The idea that gratitude is good is nothing new. Most major religions consider gratitude a virtue, and we all grew up with parents and teachers reminding us again and again to say thank you. But recent research shows that gratitude can actually be good for the giver.

“Studies show that people who are more grateful exercise more, sleep better, and have better immune function,” said Dr. Whaley, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente Georgia. “Practicing gratitude also strengthens relationships and provides protection against envy, materialism, depression and substance abuse. Importantly, gratitude can also be a source of resilience in the face of our own daily stresses as well as a source of healing after personal tragedies.”

So what is gratitude?

Robert Emmons, PhD, one of the world’s preeminent researchers on gratitude, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” This sense of wonder and thankfulness can be felt about practically anything — good food, our health, friends, the natural world.

“There are so many benefits,” added Dr. Whaley. “And the only effort required is identifying something you’re thankful for.”

For some of us, that’s easier said than done.

Gratitude can be learned

Jennifer Whaley, MD

If you’re interested in cultivating gratitude but stumped about where to start, there’s good news. Research shows that certain activities are especially likely to boost gratitude:

  • Focusing on the positive: Especially when something goes wrong, take a moment and think about the many things that went right.
  • Writing it down in a gratitude journal: Keep it fresh by focusing on different themes — family, friends, work, health or nature, for example.
  • Making a gratitude visit: The act of writing and delivering a letter of thankfulness to someone can increase happiness long after the visit.

When asked what she is grateful for this Thanksgiving, Dr. Whaley smiled.

“My sister,” she said. “This week, I’m going to make a point of telling her how grateful I am to have her in my life.”

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