Being grateful: How saying thank you can improve health

There is an interesting new
movement in psychological circles that is gaining increasing support and
recognition; it is gratitude and how it can improve our happiness.

Despite having more materially,
rising consumerism has not brought with it increased happiness, health or well being.
Perhaps surprisingly our level of happiness may have actually decreased when
compared with times of adversity.

A British opinion poll found that
in 1957, 57 per cent of those interviewed stated they were ‘very happy’,
compared with only 36 per cent in 2005, despite increased affluence. This study
mirrors research in the U.S., which has found that increased wealth has not
brought with it increased happiness, but just might be making things worse.

Psychologists have turned their
attention toward practicing gratitude and found, somewhat surprisingly that the
simple act of saying ‘thank you‘ can improve our ability to be optimistic,
increase energy levels, boost our mood, improve sleep and result in  fewer reported physical symptoms.

Happiness by definition is
subjective, yet we can identify when we feel happy, or its absence.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Professor Martin Seligman, often described
as one of the founders of positive psychology and Director of Positive
Psychology Centre University of Pennsylvania, describes happiness as consisting
of “positive emotions” and “positive activities”. These emotions
relate to the past, present and future. Positive emotions relating to the past
include satisfaction, contentment, pride and serenity. Positive emotions
relating to the future include optimism, hope and trust. Positive emotions
about the present are divided into two categories: pleasure and gratifications.

Gratitude has been described as
‘noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary’, and then taking the time to
really observe.

Professor Seligman found in a
random controlled trial of 500 people that interventions, which included daily
journal recording of three blessings (things that went well that day and why),
and a hand delivered gratitude testimonial (letter to someone the participants
felt grateful to), were two of the three exercises that resulted in a reduction
in depressive symptoms and a lasting improvement in happiness scores. The idea
that happiness can be influenced has challenged the previous belief that
happiness is at a fixed point for each of us, determined by our genetic make-up
or upbringing.  This is good news; we
have the ability to positively change how we feel, and our level of happiness
is not set in stone.

As the pace of life has become faster,
perhaps some of us do not feel we give time for the ‘little things’ like saying
‘please’ and ‘thank you’, noticing the sunset, the birds, or the people in our

For decades the emphasis has been
to look outside of ourselves and toward material goods to be happy; ‘I’ll be
happy when I have…’ However, psychological research is now expounding the
benefits of looking inwards; it’s about being happy with ourselves. How often
do we see a celebrity who seems to ‘have it all’: money, cars, fame, a great
looking partner etc., yet it transpires that they also have substance
dependency, broken relationships, or depression? Gratitude however, is not a
new idea. The act of saying thank-you in religious and spiritual practice has
long been established as a positive force for well-being. Whether to God or each
other, saying thank-you is probably one of the first phrases we learn as
children and we are brought up to acknowledge the kindness of others.

In their eight year study, Robert
Emmons and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami found that those who
kept a gratitude journal, compared to those who recorded neutral events or
‘hassles’, exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and felt
more optimistic about their lives.

Optimism is an attitude which has
been shown to boost the immune system. Researchers have found that thinking and
feeling grateful and appreciative has calming effects on the heart rate, which
may relieve hypertension and reduce the risk of cardiac disease. Although
research is ongoing, there is a growing body of scientific evidence which
supports the physical and mental benefits of gratitude.

To start the process, write down
anything you noticed in your day and/or feel grateful for. If you are unsure
what to write, take a moment right now, and look around you, really look, what
do you notice? Try being grateful for a photograph of someone special, the view
from your window, the headache that now feels better, or the smile of a child.

For inspiration, psychologist Blair
Justice suggests asking yourself three questions: what has surprised me? What
has touched me? What has inspired me?

The journal may take the form of a
gratitude list: an old friend contacted you today, the kids put out the trash without
being asked, a co-worker helped you on a difficult project.

At first, your list may be ‘at
least’: my family is not starving, I have a roof over my head and I have my

So, today, on
your way home from work or as you get ready for bed, think about three to five
events of the day for which you are grateful. These need not be big events, just
something that touched you. Even being stuck in rush hour traffic can offer the
benefit of time to yourself, time to think or listen to your favorite music.
Try it; make gratitude part of your daily routine, notice the goodness in life,
give thanks and smile.

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