“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said these words more than 2,000 years ago. And in the centuries to follow, both the practice and our understanding of this virtue have evolved into a well-studied science.
Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have in the moment instead of always reaching for something new—which research shows can support our health and happiness in numerous ways.
In recognition of World Gratitude Day (Sept. 21), The Daily caught up with Eileen Anderson, the Anne Templeton Zimmerman MD Professor in Bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine to learn more about the benefits of being grateful.
As a medical and psychological anthropologist, Anderson studies how adolescents and young adults adapt to changes in their environments in ways that both advance and harm their well-being. An award-winning teacher and mentor, she expanded the university’s offerings at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels to provide students a more comprehensive understanding of non-biological factors that affect health, as well as our ideas about well-being and illness.
Read on to discover more of Anderson’s thoughts about the science of gratitude.
1. Gratitude makes you happier and has other psychological benefits.
Gratitude has been studied in the last two decades in fields of positive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, among others. These fields have found conclusively that appreciating the world around you makes you happier and improves neurological pathways that foster well-being. People of all backgrounds oriented toward gratitude generally report feeling less stress, more positive emotions and show enhanced cognitive flexibility. Many spiritual and scientific traditions around the world believe that when you focus on appreciating what you have, instead of what you lack, you attract more of the good things into your life.
2. Gratitude creates stronger social connections.
People who practice gratitude tend to have stronger social bonds with family, friends, partners, and colleagues. When social networks support such practices, educational and work environments are more pleasant and productive. People rate liking people who express appreciation more highly than others.
3. Gratitude can make you healthier.
Gratitude can have positive physiological impacts, though some may take time. Higher levels of gratitude experience and practice have been found to impact factors such as better sleep, reduced stress, and increased energy. Therapeutic interventions have been created to produce and enhance these benefits. More, higher levels of gratitude experience and expression have been shown to improve structural and functional aspects of the brain associated with feeling good.
4. Gratitude can make you more present, aware and mindful.
Focusing on what you are thankful for can make someone more fully aware of details in their life that would otherwise go overlooked such as a beautiful day or healthy relationships. In an American culture of individualism and always striving for more, many are socialized into focusing on what they do NOT have, or what could be better. This causes most of us to overlook what is going right, rather than what is wrong.
5. And a caveat: Gratitude can be a double-edged sword, so allow yourself a full range of emotions though appreciation is always a great one to revisit.
When people are suffering, those feelings and experiences need acknowledged and worked through. Sometimes, people need psychological insight and practices; sometimes—as in the case of structural violence—they need institutional change. Having someone tell a person suffering (or even ourselves) to instead be grateful can cause additional pain. A both/and attitude where we acknowledge suffering and also try to appreciate the small things is best for health. For example, I am a four-time cancer survivor (in excellent health today). While that experience was scary and brought significant physical and emotional pain, I could also appreciate superb medical care and supportive social connections at the same time.
6. Being grateful isn’t difficult—you can start today.
Are you looking to strengthen your gratitude muscles? Here are five easy ways:
Keep a gratitude journal. Having a daily practice of writing down five things you appreciate in your life has been shown to have a positive impact on psychological and emotional health.
Share thanks with people. Doing so through a note or text enhances well-being for both the giver and receiver. Perhaps your sister did something thoughtful for you, or maybe you appreciate your kind barista or workout coach. Let them know.
Have a gratitude buddy. You can check in daily, even with a text of three things you’re thankful for today. Is there someone you talk to on a regular basis? What if you started your conversation in real life or texting with three quick things you appreciate today? It redirects your attention, and new habits are often stronger when you have an accountability partner. Plus, it enhances the sense of well-being to share in your friend’s gratitude.
Connect with your senses. When you’re hurting (or anytime), think of something from each of our five senses you appreciate; for example: a comfortable chair, a beautiful sky, the smell of a rose, your favorite music, or a bite of food that was delicious today.
Reflect on how far you’ve come. Remember a time when you were lacking something you have today, whether it was health, something material, or a relationship. Focus on how awesome it is that you have that thing today.