The Power of Gratitude to Improve Mental and Physical Wellness

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In a world that seems out of our control, one thing we can control is our thoughts. We can actively choose to focus on things we are thankful for, such as a sunny day. By looking for things to be grateful for we develop a “gratitude attitude.” Gratitude is different from optimism as it is focused on developing an active appreciation for things in our lives.

A gratitude mindset can benefit both the mind (mental) and the body (physical). Psychological benefits include reduced stress and depression symptoms, reduced risk for suicide, an increased sense of happiness, improved relationships and a greater satisfaction for life. Physiological benefits include a reduced perception of pain, improved sleep, less inflammation, lower blood pressure and a healthier immune system. While the benefits will vary from person to person, there is enough scientific evidence linking gratitude and physical health to make us take notice.

Even in the darkest hour, it is likely that we can find something in our lives to appreciate. Waking up each morning, having a source of household income, having electricity in the house and being healthy are basic necessities we can be thankful for. We can also appreciate natural phenomena such as beautiful flowers blooming in our neighborhood or kind gestures from a friend or stranger. Chances are, if we think about it, we can find at least three things each day for which we can say “thank you.”

Practicing gratitude takes just a few minutes out of our day. We can do this in a variety of ways. Here are a few suggestions you might try:

  • Write down in a gratitude journal three things each day you are thankful for.
  • Thank someone—a grocery store clerk, family member or person who practices safe physical distancing from you—verbally or mentally.
  • List three things that make your life more comfortable, such as hot water, a refrigerator, a television.
  • List the people or pets who love you or rely on you or that you love. These may be parents, friends, employees, students or teachers.

Practicing gratitude to improve health is not unlike choosing to start a physical exercise program. When we choose to exercise our positive thoughts, we can train ourselves to be aware of the good in our life. Like the first week of a new exercise program, it may be challenging at first. But over time, our mind and bodies will respond favorably to our “gratitude attitude,” and it will become a natural way of being.

Erica A. Wehrwein, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at Michigan State University.  Her research interests are on the connection between breathing and the nervous system, interactions of mindset and personality on physiological health outcomes and neural control of blood pressure.

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