Gratitude is good for you!

(The third of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

Increasingly science suggests that gratitude is good for us.

Research by Robert Emmons indicates that people who consciously focus on gratitude experience greater emotional wellbeing and physical health than those who don’t. Gratitude:

  • Brings us happiness, boosting optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm and other positive emotions.
  • Reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Is good for our bodies, strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing symptoms of stress, illness and aches and pains and encouraging us to take care of ourselves.
  • Improves sleep
  • Makes us more resilient
  • Strengthens relationships
  • Promotes forgiveness
  • Feeds altruism and compassion

In particular, says Emmons,

“I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Greater Good Website – Why Gratitude is Good

He suggests that “true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others”, whether other people or ‘higher powers’ and lists four reasons for its transformative power:

  1. It allows us to celebrate the present and magnifies positive emotions
  2. It blocks toxic, negative emotions
  3. It provides resistance against stress
  4. It results in a heightened sense of self-worth

He acknowledges that the practice of gratitude can be challenging. It is predicated on acceptance rather than control. It is at odds with the ‘self-serving bias’. It contradicts the ‘just-world’ hypothesis, which says that we get what we deserve, and the sense of ‘entitlement’ that rest on this.

Cultivating gratitude, therefore, has to be a conscious choice and lifelong practice.

The infomatic below, included by Robert Emmons on the Greater Good website, gives a great sense of why you might want to cultivate the practice of gratitude.

What good is gratitude? Infomatic

For more details of this fascinating research, I would encourage you to explore the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good website.


(See also Gratitude and Joy – an intimate relationship and Grateful to whom?)

Grateful to whom?

(The second of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

When I experience gratitude, to whom do I give thanks?

Although there are many circumstances in which gratitude is and should be other-directed, my perception of it as a state of being implies that it is a state complete in and of itself. It is a profound and positive way of relating to reality.

At the most fundamental level, it acknowledges the gift of life. I wake up each day with a deep sense of gratitude for being alive. I am grateful to my parents, my family, my friends for their love and care, for the pleasure of their company, for their impact on my life. I am grateful for water to drink, air to breathe, for sunlight, for all the miraculous natural processes that sustain life. I am grateful for beauty, whether in looking in awe at the rich colours of an autumn landscape or in experiencing human constructs – art, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, good food and wine and more.

Gratitude for Autumn Glory at the Brickworks

But, in cultivating the practice of gratitude, I am also grateful for the growth and learning offered by the less obviously ‘positive’ experiences. I would not wish a head injury on anyone. But as well as being profoundly grateful that it wasn’t worse, I am genuinely grateful for the insights I am gaining from my current experience of post-concussion syndrome. I have a new appreciation of the demands we make on our brain, the intense sensory input of modern life, and the way in which the stream of our thoughts impacts on our processing ability and levels of fatigue. This awareness offers me new choices as to how to live and be. My ‘prescription’ of thirty minutes meditation morning and evening is forcing me to adopt a discipline that I hope to maintain at some level for the rest of my life. I have been gifted an opportunity to embrace a time of life-change with a degree of mindfulness that, given my enthusiastic nature, I would likely never have managed had I not hit my head! And, of course, any such experience can feed our capacity for compassion through the new awareness it brings.

This kind of gratitude practice is a discipline and also a chosen lens. It is perhaps most closely aligned to Buddhist thought, though I feel blessed that for me it seems to have been a natural part of my relationship with life as far back as I can remember.

It is possible, even at a very mundane level, to choose gratitude. I learned long ago to choose to be grateful, every time I catch a red light, for a moment or two of space in which to stop and breathe!

Of course, gratitude may be experienced or perceived in the light of our beliefs and directed towards God, Allah, the Universe, Mother Earth, a Higher Power. Some would argue that atheist or agnostic gratitude must admit a somewhat limited quality. This is not my experience. If gratitude is simply the expression of a feeling, then perhaps this may be true. If it is experienced as a way of being it is genuinely transformative,  regardless of an individual’s belief system.

Gratitude accepts that nothing is ours by right; it roots us in mindful awareness, acceptance and humility; it helps us achieve peace of mind, even when life is challenging; and, increasingly, modern science recognizes that it is good for us!

(See also Gratitude and Joy – an intimate relationship and Gratitude is good for you!)

Gratitude and joy – an intimate relationship

(The first of three interconnected posts on gratitude)

I am increasingly inclined to think that joy and gratitude are close companions, engaged in a mutual dance of enrichment.

When we experience that moment of joy, whether at the birth of a child or in witnessing a beautiful sunset, is it possible to feel joy without a sense of gratitude?

Joy and gratitude for an Outouais Sunset

Perhaps gratitude can exist without joy, but I think ‘the practice of gratitude’ at the very least primes us to experience joy more readily.

So how do we define gratitude? The dictionary definition is simply ‘the quality of being thankful’. Robert Emmons, possibly the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, expands on this, describing it as an affirmation of goodness and a recognition that the sources of this goodness are outside ourselves (see his full definition at the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good website).

A hundred or so years B.C., Cicero argued that among virtues, gratitude is ‘the parent of all the others’, a virtue that begets other virtues. This is backed up by contemporary social scientists who contend that gratitude ‘stimulates moral behaviour’.

I experience gratitude as a state of being, one which provides the lens through which I choose to experience life. As with joy, I am conscious that gratitude is a practice that must be cultivated. I share the Buddhist perception that such a practice leads to the direct experience and awareness of the inter-connectedness of all of life and of the ongoing dynamic of giving and receiving. As well, it creates a context of abundance.

Gratitude also roots us more firmly in the moment. As the Chopra Centre puts it:

“gratitude brings our attention into the present, which is the only place where miracles can unfold. The deeper our appreciation, the more we see with the eyes of the soul and the more our life flows in harmony with the creative power of the universe.”

Whilst gathering my thoughts for this post, the phrase ‘a state of grace’ flickered through my consciousness. Given that the words ‘gratitude’ and ‘grace’ share a common root, this is unsurprising. But what does this mean to our understanding of gratitude?  Vipassana (insight) meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt expresses this beautifully:

“This grace of conscious life, of having a mind that can know “this moment is like this,” is the root of all wonder, from which gratitude flows. The wonder, the mystery, is that you, like everyone else, are given this short, precious time of conscious embodiment in which you can directly know life for yourself.”

(See also Grateful to whom? and Gratitude is good for you!)