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Gratitude and the Science behind the Practice

In the last lesson, you learned an introduction to practicing mindfulness and some tools to help support the practice of meditation and stress management.

Now let's get into one of my FAVORITE topics, the practicing of gratitude. This practice in and of itself has had a major effect on my mindset alone.

First – what is gratitude? It's an easy enough question with a relatively simple answer. It is being thankful for what you have vs what you don't, focusing on the good vs the bad.

Probably pretty obvious, right?

But why is this important? Well, because appreciating the little things REALLY DOES add up!

In fact, practicing gratitude boosts not just your emotional but also your physical well being.

Now before I get into the science, let me just say, that I am someone who was not a believer in this my entire life.

Growing up, my mom would tell me to, focus on the positive, change your attitude, things of that nature. And I just didn't buy into that.

I'm not really sure what it was that shifted my mindset, but once I did and actually gave this practice a try, I have been tremendously impressed with what it has done in terms of my outlook, positivity and certainly decreased pessimism.

According to Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, practicing gratitude can:

  • Lower blood pressure.

  • Improve immune function.

  • Facilitate more efficient sleep.

Practicing gratitude ALSO reduces lifetime risk for:

  • Depression.

  • Anxiety.

  • Substance abuse disorders.

  • Resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.

So WHY or HOW does gratitude have such a positive effect on your life?

Robert Emmons believes gratitude works because it allows you to "celebrate the present AND be an active participant in your own life.

By valuing and appreciating your friends, yourself, your situations and circumstances, your mind focuses on what you already have rather than something that's absent and is needed.

Studies by Emmons of health-care practitioners found that keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28 %) and depression (16 %).

Gratitude is also related to a 23% lower level of the stress hormone cortisol. And the 2 gratitude activities of counting your blessings and gratitude letter writing reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41% over a six month period.

However, as Emmons states:

"Just because gratitude is good doesn't mean it's always easy. Practicing gratitude can be at odds with some deeply ingrained psychological tendencies.

One is the "self-serving bias." That means that when good things happen to us, we say it's because of something we did, but when bad things happen, we blame other people or circumstances.

Gratitude really goes against the self-serving bias because when we're grateful, we give credit to other people for our success. We accomplished some of it ourselves, yes, but we widen our range of attribution to also say, "Well, my parents gave me this opportunity." Or, "I had teachers. I had mentors. I had siblings, peers – other people assisted me along the way." That's very different from a self-serving bias.

Gratitude also goes against our need to feel in control of our environment. Sometimes with gratitude, you just have to accept life as it is and be grateful for what you have.

Finally, gratitude contradicts the "just-world" hypothesis, which says that we get what we deserve in life. Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. But it doesn't always work out that way, does it? Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.

With gratitude comes the realization that we get more than we deserve."

Pretty impressive stuff, right!?

I will say that this is very close to my own personal experience. I never wanted to recognize the little things in life that I had...a roof over my head, a husband that loves me, a good family, clothes on my back, etc.

But once I started writing down these blessings, on a daily basis, my mind started to shift. Are there other things I want out of life? Absolutely! But I am SO grateful for what I have and the journey that I am on.

As I mentioned before, I wasn't always like that. I spent a good 30+ years resisting this theory, and my happiness and quality of life really paid the price.

But now, I am happier than I ever have been, and on a much more consistent basis as well. And isn't that what life is really all about anyway?

If you're skeptical, believe me, I GET it. I certainly was. And yes, it is hard to practice, especially when nothing seems to be going your way. But why not give it a shot? What have you got to lose, other than a negative outlook and unhappy days?

YOUR TASK: Take a few minutes and write down 10 things you are grateful for. These can be things such as your health, your spouse, your kids and even something like having clothes to wear and a roof over your head or food to eat. Do not overthink this. Write down ANYTHING. Even if you live in a house that is falling apart, you still have that house to protect you from the elements, and that is something to be grateful for.

In the next lesson, you'll learn a few gratitude exercises and how to use them.

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Written by

Kristin Nicole