Giving Thanks: Gratitude Really Does Ease Stress and Here’s Why

Feeling more stressed these days about work, family, health, or finances? You’re not alone. Research shows we’re stressed more than ever this Fall. According to the US Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey, 33% of respondents said they have clinically-relevant symptoms of stress and anxiety - significantly more than before the pandemic.1 But research suggests that one aspect of the season can actually lessen stress and increase happiness, and it's built right into the holidays — being grateful. In this article, we look at the science behind gratitude as a stress-reliever and ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life.

The benefits of gratitude are many

The word ‘gratitude’ comes from the Latin word ‘gratia’, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on context). In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness in our lives, and in the process, recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least somewhat outside of ourselves. As a result, being grateful helps us connect to something larger than ourselves — to other people, to nature, or even a higher power.2

Cultivating and expressing gratitude has been found to help in many ways, including in building and sustaining long-term relationships, dealing with adversity, and bouncing back faster from adversity. In addition, scientists have found that gratitude also:

  • Builds emotional awareness

  • Releases toxic emotions like jealousy and envy 

  • Improves sleep quality

  • Reduces pain

  • Improves overall health and well-being

  • Aids in stress management

What the research on gratitude says

Much research has been done on gratitude as it relates to stress relief. One study asked participants to write about things they were grateful for that had occurred during that week. After 10 weeks of gratitude journaling, participants were more optimistic, felt less stress, and felt better about their lives. In addition, they exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor.3

In another study, participants wrote and personally delivered a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. Researchers found that participants saw a significant increase in happiness scores; further, that this impact was greater than from any other intervention, and benefits lasted at least a month.4

So what causes these positive changes in our brains? When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin — two hormones that make us feel happier inside. Leading gratitude researcher, Dr. Guy Winch, says, “Think of your mind like your digestive system — what you put in it impacts how you feel. When you flood your mind with a constant flow of worry, envy, and resentment, ...it negatively impacts your mental well-being. And the reverse is true. A gratitude practice is like a healthy eating plan for your mind.”5

Ways to cultivate gratitude

Although it may feel contrived at first, the act of feeling grateful grows stronger with use and practice. Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis:

  • Pause and reflect. Stop rushing from activity to activity for a minute and ask yourself questions like, “What did I see today or over the last month that was beautiful?” and “What has someone done for me recently that I am grateful for?”

  • Write a thank-you note. It can be a text, an email, or a letter - expressing your appreciation for that person's impact on your life. (And every once in a while, write one to yourself!)

  • Get into the habit of giving regular compliments - to your staff, your kids, your friends, your partner.

  • Meditate. Focus on the present moment without judgment.

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Start the practice of writing one paragraph every day about one thing for which you’re grateful and why it's meaningful. 

‘Tis the season to be thankful

Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. One recent study found that participants who practiced gratitude showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, based on an fMRI scan - and this effect was still there three months after the study began.6 

The science is clear. Practicing gratitude regularly will have a positive impact on your brain, increase your feelings of happiness, help control stress, and even improve physical health - and the benefits last a long time. So, take some time for gratitude amongst the turkey, gatherings, and gifts this year - and watch your stress melt away.

Optivio is an enterprise-level stress management and performance optimization platform that can help your workforce better manage stress. Learn more about it here: http://www.optivio.com/technology 

References

1. U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, 2021.
2. Harvard Medical School, Giving thanks can make you happier, Aug 14, 2021.
3. Emmons et al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, 2003.
4. Huffman et al, General Hospital Psychiatry, Feasibility and utility of positive psychology exercises for suicidal inpatients, 2014.
5. Dr. Guy Winch, The Science of Emotional Health.
6. Wong et al, Psychotherapy Research, Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, 2017.

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