The Benefits of Getting Grateful
Nov 23, 2021
It’s November and the holiday season is fast approaching! The next stop on the holiday train is Thanksgiving: a day dedicated to celebrating the harvest and the year’s many blessings. Thanksgiving is a meaningful occasion at Fitness Together® studios, but probably not for the reasons you’d think. You may be shocked to learn that we won’t warn you about the consequences of eating big meals or tell you to avoid starchy leftovers. Instead, we prefer to focus on the reason for the season and highlight one of our core values, expressing gratitude.
If you’re like many others, you may think of gratitude as a by-product of happiness and good fortune. You may also recognize gratitude as a gesture intended to convey thanks. Gratitude, you might think, is an emotion felt when life is generally going well. But what you might not realize, is that actively cultivating a daily gratitude practice can result in an abundance of emotional and physical rewards that support your overall well-being.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, gratitude is the habit of appreciating every good thing that comes to you and giving continuous thanks, even in times of challenge or change. Gratitude is a positive emotion that has biological impacts, which when felt, can produce long-lasting benefits. To better understand gratitude, try likening it to a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it will be and the more natural using it will feel. At first, training a muscle may feel awkward, but if you stick with it, over time you will begin to feel stronger, gain flexibility, and expand your range of motion. The same will happen if you practice daily gratitude.
According to Inc. magazine, research findings on gratitude suggest that “the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset.” The more effort you make to cultivate gratitude on a daily basis, the likelier you are to spontaneously feel it in the future. “In short, practicing gratitude seems to kick off a healthful, self-perpetuating cycle in your brain - counting your blessings now, makes it easier to notice and count them later.”
Thankfully, the good news doesn’t stop there! According to pediatric experts, practicing gratitude also delivers other important mental health benefits including improved mood, boosted optimism, stronger social bonds and lowered experiences of anxiety and depression. And the physical benefits are plentiful, as well. Expressing daily gratitude can result in higher energy levels, better sleep patterns and a stronger immune system, which can make it easier to engage in daily activities that promote health, like exercising and eating well.
The scientific background behind the positive effects of feeling gratitude is anchored in understanding the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional experiences. Two of the main neurologic sites that are responsible for regulating emotions, memory and bodily functioning, are activated through feelings of gratitude. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA stated that “gratitude does change the neural structures in the brain, and make us feel happier and more content.”
So how do you cultivate gratitude? Here are some suggestions!
MAKE A LIST
One daily habit that can help us to feel gratitude is journaling. Daily journaling has been linked to feelings of overall well-being and documenting our gratitude through writing can provide further benefit, still. Every day, make a list of the things you are grateful for - both big and small. Include even the littlest gratitudes because, as Emerson said “all things have contributed to your advancement, (so) you should include all things in your gratitude.” When possible, hand write your list! Writing with pen and paper engages both your body and mind, which results in better memory and recall and helps you to avoid distractions. On days when you don’t feel particularly grateful, refer to previously written lists to remind you of all the things that deserve your appreciation.
SAY MINDFUL THANK YOUS
We say “thanks” many times a day, but without actual acknowledgment of the person we are thanking or the reason why. We thank the bank teller who facilitates our transaction, or the person who holds open the door for us to walk through, but we often do so reactively. To practice mindful gratitude, when you thank someone, first pause to be present in the moment and consider why you’re thanking them. Are you thanking them for a job well done? Are you grateful for their kindness, courtesy or generosity? Whatever the reason, acknowledge it in your thank you. Mentally processing the reason behind your “thanks” has two big benefits: it activates your cognitive gratitude zones for longer, and it affirms the behavior of the person you’re thanking.
PAY IT FORWARD
Is there an organization you’re grateful for? Why not donate time or money to the cause they champion? Did your server, hairdresser, or barista make your day better? Surprise them with a generous tip and a heartfelt “thank you”. Could someone in your life use a little help? Don’t hesitate to offer it. By paying your gratitude forward, you’ll increase your own personal happiness and give someone else a reason to feel grateful, as well.
BE GRATEFUL FOR YOUR BODY
Are you dreading today’s workout? Does a session with your personal trainer seem less appealing than staying in bed? While it may be tempting to skip your daily session, instead, consider shifting your perspective to frame your ability to exercise in gratitude. While physical discomfort may be momentarily unpleasant, and while some exercises can be hard, exchange feelings of frustration, for feelings of gratitude for what your body allows you to do. Thank your legs for doing those squats, mentally hug your heart for beating and give your lungs some love for supplying your body with oxygen. Adjusting your perspective to acknowledge your body’s strength and to further it through exercise, will help you to flex your gratitude muscles, as well.
STAY GRATEFUL, EVEN DURING TOUGH TIMES
It’s easy to feel grateful when things go well, but when the road is bumpy and paved with anxiety, depression, anger, or grief it can be harder. But don’t give up on gratitude - it’s times like these when you need gratitude the most. Robert Eammons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude made this observation in a recent article. “Trials and suffering can actually refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted.” Times of trial pose an opportunity to focus on the small gratitudes in life, or to appreciate the growth you may be experiencing through the challenges you’re facing. Life’s obstacles provide an opportunity to remind yourself how strong and resilient you are and to center yourself in the gratitude you feel for the many positives that exist in your life and for the lessons you are learning along the way.
There are so many gifts, no matter how big or small, to acknowledge through cultivating gratitude. Today, be mindful in recognizing and appreciating them, and you will reap the benefits tomorrow.