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The Surprising Physical Benefits of Gratitude

Practice Gratitude to Increase Health and Happiness

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

The human experience is like a kaleidoscope. Instead of colours and sequences, it is an ever-changing pattern of emotions, feelings and thoughts.

Somedays, the kaleidoscope features a beautiful array of colours and sequences — these are days where we feel love, joy, gratitude, appreciation or happiness, and think positively. Other days, we see the world through a negative lens, feeling anger, hate, envy, annoyance or anxiety.

No one can be blamed for having moments of negativity. It’s a crazy world we live in, where bad news, stress and negative noise is a constant. Even when everything seems to be working out, the kaleidoscope might suddenly shift to reveal ugly patterns and dull colours for no reason at all.

Negativity can take over our experience without warning, and it’s often hard to switch back to a positive outlook.

Research suggests that what we think and feel on the daily has a simultaneous chemical effect in nearly every system in the body — including immune, endocrine, nervous and digestive. For the sake of our health, it’s important to find a way to cultivate positivity on a daily basis.

The Chemicals of Emotion

Mind-body medicine recognizes this connection of thoughts and feelings to physical effects within the body. The technical name for this branch of science is Psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI. Dr. Candace Pert is the neuroscientist responsible with discovering and creating this field, combining three previously separated sciences of neuroscience, immunology, and endocrinology.

An oversimplified explanation: within our bodies are literal “molecules of emotion” — information carriers called peptides, and receivers called receptors. Peptides are the chemical messengers, and receptors line the surface of cells, scanning for peptides that will fit in them like a key in a lock. When they connect with receptors the message is delivered deep into the cell causing a chemical reaction that can cause huge changes to the cell — either good or bad.

According to Dr. Pert, this network of information delivery weaves the brain, glands and immune systems together, resulting in complex responses to both internal and external environmental changes. It’s a two-way street: changes inside the body effect emotions, and changes in emotions (resulting from external stimuli) effect the body. Your emotional kaleidoscope is being constantly twisted by internal and external forces, having a direct impact on the cells and systems of the body.

Using Gratitude to Maintain Well Being

Our physical and mental well being depends in part on our ability to constructively deal with negativity and embrace the positive aspects of life, difficult as it may be.

Gratitude is a powerful tool for maintaining a positive outlook. It is like fertilizer, encouraging the growth of healthy emotional plants like joy, love, enthusiasm and happiness while protecting the mind garden from weeds like greed, bitterness and envy.

Psychology Professors Robert A. Emmons of UC Davie and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami conducted a widely-cited study on gratitude in which three groups kept a daily journal. The first group wrote about events that happened that day, the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences, and the third a daily list of things for which they are grateful.

General well being was significantly increased in the gratitude group.

“The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved.”

Emmons elaborates on the study in his book Gratitude Works! adding that the gratitude group slept half an hour more each evening, decreased their dietary fat intake by 20%, and even showed signs of increased heart health determined by an increase in vagal tone.

How to Cultivate Gratitude

Gratitude is a choice. You can wake up in the morning and steep in loneliness or stress or regret, or you can sit down and practice gratitude to start your day. Negative and positive feelings cannot exist at the same time, so exercising your gratitude muscles forces the bad stuff aside.

Gratitude Journal

Physically writing what you’re thankful for is an effective way to make gratitude a concrete practice.

It’s as easy as answering the following:

What am I truly grateful for in my life?

What relationships do I have that others don’t?

What do I take for granted?

What advantages have I been given in life?

What freedoms do I have that others don’t?

The Five-Minute Journal

For an even easier way to make gratitude journaling a practice, there’s the five minute journal — formatted specifically for starting and ending your day with gratitude and a positive outlook.

Each page begins with a quote, or a weekly challenge. The morning section acts as a primer of positivity — writing down what you’re grateful for, how you can make the day better, and affirming who you are enters these positive ideas into the subconscious, setting a solid foundation for a positive mindset.

The evening section helps to tie a bow on the day before sleep, and gives you an opportunity to reflect on how you can make tomorrow even better.

Pro Tips from Dr. Robert Emmons

For maximum effect, follow these tips from Dr. Emmons:

Get Specific Think about something specific — a moment, person, or even a meal— that you truly appreciated. It’s like looking at a painting — if you observe at a glance it is hard to comprehend it’s beauty. When you look closer at the details and colours and textures, it becomes more vivid and powerful.

Don’t Overdo It Gratitude fatigue is a thing. Research shows that occasional journaling (1–3 times per week) is more effective than daily. If it becomes a chore, take a break. You’ll have a lot more things to be grateful for when you return.

Use Subtraction Imagine what life would be like without something, a certain someone, or an opportunity that came your way. You can also think of the bad scenarios you’ve avoided, and the good fortune you’ve had for things to work out the way they have. Counting your lucky stars is just as powerful as counting your blessings.

Putting Gratitude to Work

A grateful disposition is like a BS shield. It can protect your positivity, and even help you deal with negativity in a healthy way. Consider taking a “gratitude time out” next time you are:

• Frustrated, anxious, or nervous at work

• Laying in bed, wide awake, with a whirling mind • Feeling lonely, lost or worthless • Stressed out and lacking motivation

With some practice, you might just find yourself happier, healthier, and finally able to exercise a little control over that shifty emotional kaleidoscope.

References Gratitude Works! — By Robert Emmons

10 Ways to Become More Grateful - Robert Emmons Gratitude Exercises -

Emotional Biochemistry -

Gratitude and Wellbeing -

How Gratitude Helps to Heal Your Brain -

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