The Heart of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

Gratitude is Heart Healthy

Several recent studies have shown that patients suffering from cardiovascular disease experience measurable—often significant—improvement when they engage in a simple, regular gratitude practice. It could be keeping a gratitude journal, or pausing daily to think or meditate about what one is grateful for, or taking time as a family to share experiences of gratitude. The outcomes of such simple gratitude awareness practices include stress reduction, reduced depression and fatigue, confidence in one’s ability to positively influence personal health and wellbeing, and reductions in systemic inflammation.

In one study, patients with heart failure were asked to keep a gratitude journal in which each day they noted two or three things for which they were grateful. A control group facing similar levels of heart failure did not keep the journal. Both groups continued to receive their usual medical care for their condition. After two months, those who engaged in gratitude journaling showed reduced inflammation and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Increasing HRV is an indicator of disease improvement.

Gratitude Improves Our Sleep 

In recent years, sleep has been increasingly recognized as an essential restorative for physical and mental health, as well as for heart health, longevity, and personal wellbeing. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause accidents, increase errors, and to cost U.S. companies more than $400 billion each year in lost productivity, according to a 2016 Rand Corporation study.

One way gratitude improves sleep is by increasing our positive pre-sleep cognitions (thinking about the pleasant things in our lives), thus inducing sleep. Gratitude also decreases the negative pre-sleep cognitions (critical thoughts and worries) that impede our ability to fall asleep. In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal slept an average of 30-minutes more, woke up feeling more refreshed, and stayed more awake and alert throughout the day than those who didn’t journal.

Gratitude Counters Feelings of Excessive Entitlement

There’s entitlement—the belief that one is deserving of certain privileges—and then there’s “excessive entitlement”—the belief that one deserves a disproportionate share than others. Those who feel excessive entitlement are rarely satisfied with what they receive—be it attention, pay, or praise. They always want more. Excessive entitlement can lead to toxic and destructive behaviors in relationships and in the workplace.

If one always feels entitled to more, there is little room for gratitude. Where gratitude is encouraged and practiced, we see an increase in positive emotions—joy, enthusiasm, optimism—and a decrease in such destructive emotions as envy, greed, resentment, and blaming. In a study entitled “A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart,” researchers led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, found that people who experience gratitude are 20-30 percent less likely to be annoyed, irritated, or aggressive.

What’s Keeping Us from Feeling Gratitude?

With so much evidence pointing to the positive benefits of gratitude, why aren’t we all looking for things in our lives to appreciate and finding abundant ways to express our thanks?

In an article in U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Robert Emmons attributes our failure to sustain—or sometimes even muster—gratitude to:

  1. A materialistic and consumption-based society that fosters both a sense of entitlement and a sense that we can never have all that we deserve. Says Emmons, “We believe the universe owes us a living. We do not want to be beholden.”
  2. A lack of humility in our culture. Those lacking humility, Emmons says, succumb to the myth of self-sufficiency. They hold the illusion of being self-made, discounting any dependence on parents, friends, colleagues, the government, or a spiritual foundation. With humility, we readily see our interconnectedness, and for that . . . we are grateful.

I believe there is a third reason for our all-too-frequent failure to feel or express gratitude: we simply aren’t paying attention. We are rushing too fast, preoccupied with our technology, or simply oblivious to our surroundings. We don’t notice the woman who holds the door for us, or the car that slows so we can merge, or the autumn colors that would take our breath away if we could just see them.

There’s no question that there are many great reasons to implement a gratitude practice. Whether we take five minutes to jot our gratitude in a journal, spend our last few moments before sleep recalling all the good things that happened during the day, or take time at the dinner table to share appreciation, these simple practices can be life-changing. If you have a favorite gratitude practice, please share it in the comments below.

Welcome to November, and to perpetual thanksgiving!

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” (William Arthur Ward)

16 thoughts on “The Heart of Gratitude

  1. Gratitude has become a daily practice that started with small, small steps and continues to have a wonderful impact on my life. I write down three things that I’m grateful for each day, inspired by a friend who had come across a study that found gratitude was one of best and enduring things that you can do for your state of mind. It works for me! Thank you for another thoughtful post 😌

    Liked by 1 person

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