by David G. Allan
If you really think about it, so many of us should be in a perpetual state of gratitude.
Which of these do you have going for you right now? Family. Friends. Love. Health. Freedom from war and natural disaster. Imagination. Community. A roof over our heads. Common decency. Hope. Opportunity. Memories. Financial stability. Favorite places. Days off work. Good weather. The golden age of television. Books. Music. Ice cream. Weekends. A friendly exchange. Something good that happened today. Something bad that didn't happen today. A good cup of coffee.
Studies have shown that gratitude can indirectly influence physical health, as well. "Gratitude strengthens your immune system and helps you experience less pain,"
You may not have everything you want (or even need) on my list or yours, but that probably still leaves buckets -- nay, container ships -- full of tangible and conceptual items for which to be grateful. Things can always be better, but they can always be worse. It often depends on how you look at that proverbial glass of water.
To get in better touch with gratefulness -- and get the health benefits of doing so -- the trick is to find easy ways to count blessings more often than, say, over an annual turkey dinner. Keep your thankfulness boiling on the front burner of your mind, and you will increase your general appreciation of life.
Try to be more grateful for the small, mundane things that give you joy and meaning, as well as the big ones. Acknowledging just a handful each day will benefit you, and there are ways to make that a habit.
Grateful = healthful
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of displays of gratitude is that they are closely tied to increased feelings of happiness -- for both the givers and the receivers.
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Christina Costa, a teacher and doctoral student at the University of Michigan who has studied neuroscience and psychology. She explained how you can see gratefulness on brain scans. The feeling lights up the "feel-good" neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin, which Gupta pointed out also decrease hormones like cortisol, associated with stress.
"The neurotransmitter reactions are pretty immediate," Costa said. "It is hard to feel bad when you are focusing on someone that you are so grateful for, something that changed your life or something that is going really well today."
Resilience, including the ability to cope with stress and trauma, is also correlated with gratitude. Studies have shown that counting blessings was a factor in managing post-traumatic stress for Vietnam War veterans and an effective coping strategy for many after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other research shows that the more grateful you are, the more you are likely to exhibit patience and self-control. It can even be good for marriages and relationships: Couples good at exhibiting thankfulness tend to be "more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time." Our best selves, it seems, are our most grateful selves.
Studies have shown that gratitude can indirectly influence physical health, as well. "Gratitude strengthens your immune system and helps you experience less pain," Costa said.
Those who have "dispositional gratitude" -- defined by one study as "part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world" -- are more likely to report good physical health, a propensity for healthy activities and a willingness to seek help for health concerns.
In another study, New York teenagers who rated as the most grateful in their class -- defined by "having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives" -- were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The benefits of having more gratitude also correlated with benefits to the heart among patients who had experienced heart failure.
Being grateful can even get you a better night's sleep. According to one study involving college students who instituted various methods for increasing gratitude, such as a gratitude journal, they worried less at bedtime and slept longer and better. In another study, adults in the United Kingdom (40% of whom had sleep disorders), reported that thinking about what they are grateful for at night led to falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer.
There are many ways to increase your sense of gratitude and reliable research does show that whatever you do to increase gratitude pays off, so it's worth it to find what is easy, enjoyable and effective for you.
Whatever way you start infusing your life with more moments of gratitude, in the short and long term, you will be grateful that you did.
David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness