Listen: Collett Smart chats to Katrina Roe about the benefits of gratitude. Photo credit: Jeremy Cai
Gratitude is hardly a new invention. Surely ever since Adam and Eve first helped one other with the ties on their fig leaf clothing, we’ve been saying “thanks”.
What’s new about gratitude, though, is our growing awareness of how it can improve our physical and mental health. More and more scientific studies into gratefulness are proving that it has a positive impact on wellbeing.
One study by a group of researchers including the alternative medicine writer Deepak Chopra, showed gratitude was linked with better sleep, better mental health and energy levels, improved heart health, and better overall wellbeing.
And gratitude expert Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis Medical Centre in California, has found through research that gratitude profoundly affects the body’s biochemistry.
His studies show thankful people have lower blood pressure, stronger immunity, less risk of anxiety, depression and addiction, and a higher tendency to stick to healthy diets and exercise habits. Their minds are more focussed on what they already have, rather than what they don’t have, which improves overall health.
Thankfulness: Good for Relationships and Brains
Psychologist Collett Smart is passionate about the benefits of gratitude. She told Katrina Roe that it’s a powerful tool in relationships and many aspects of health.
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“With gratitude we learn to consider sacrifice and kindness and selflessness that others have shown towards us,” she said. “When we thank people for what they’ve done we remember that others matter.
“And it’s a powerful mental health too. People with gratitude see reduced inflammation in their bodies, it improves sleep, they’re generally more agreeable, open and optimistic, and more satisfied with life in general.
“Practicing thankfulness in general actually seems to change the structure of the brain. We pull the brain out of negative thinking ruts.”
She spoke of one study showing that a thankful attitude can reduce the stress hormone cortisol by 20 percent.
“Gratefulness stops us from getting into downward negative spirals and turning to yelling, alcohol or drugs.”
“Gratefulness seems to bolster our resilience in general, it seems to buffer stress, and stops us from getting into this downward negative spiral and turning to poor coping mechanisms like yelling, alcohol or drugs,” she said.
“There’s also a study showing religious belief is associated with greater levels of resilience because they say religious beliefs emphasise gratitude.”
Ten Practical Ways to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude isn’t a mindset you can adopt overnight, especially if you have a habit of leaning towards anger, bitterness or negative thinking. But it’s something everyone can learn with practice, says Collett.
“We have to practice gratitude. It’s not a static state. We need to practice it regularly,” she said. “One of the ways scientists have seen the brain change was when they had people record three things every day that they were grateful for over a two week period. That’s when they saw a change in the brain structure.”
To build an attitude of thankfulness, and teach it to your children, Collett suggest the following strategies:
- Write down three things you’re thankful each day, in a thankfulness journal.
- Have “gratitude time” with your children at the dinner table
- At bedtime, have your kids talk about the things they were thankful for that day.
- Model thankfulness to your children by thanking other people in front of them, such as grandparents, shop keepers or teachers.
- Thank your children, even for chores they routinely have to do.
- Place notes of appreciation in places like their lunch boxes and under pillows.
- Send text messages of gratitude to your teenagers or spouse.
- Set up a ‘Grateful Jar’, and place notes in it about things you’re grateful for, then read them out at the family dinner table once a month.
- Put a ‘Gratitude Whiteboard’ up in your house.
- Create a personal thankfulness journal or box for kids who need a little extra help with their mood or self esteem, and each month read through the entries.