Gratitude Has Changed My Life and It Will Change Yours Too
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” – Zig Ziglar
Gratitude may be one of those words you’ll see written in scripty font on a chalkboard sign in someone’s kitchen or guest room, like Love or Laugh or Family. But that doesn’t cheapen its worth or its significance in our lives. Heck, I’ve got it tattooed for eternity on my arm in my mother’s handwriting. I figured after over a decade of 3am 9-1-1 calls, supplemental oxygen, at-home breathing treatments, and now the new normal of organ transplant list limbo, that everyday I wake up and have air in my lungs is a day I should be grateful. Then again we all should if we live by those standards. My mother’s journey to happiness in her frail body and decaying lungs may be the best story I can tell to preach the importance of being grateful in this short life. But I promise to bring in scientific facts of why gratitude is the right attitude for our brains and the rest of our bodies for all you left brain folks out there. But first, a personal story.
My mom has been sick almost her entire life, so needless to say she’s been sick the entirety of her marriage to my father and all of mine and my sister’s lives. It wasn’t always the kind of sickness that kept her tethered to a compressed oxygen tank, or her skin bruised and worn thin from all the medications she’s on to keep the infection in her lungs at bay, but still sick. She was actually the first kid in the US to be diagnosed with ABPA or allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, landing her in the hospital when she was 8 years old and almost having a lung removed. After that rough patch as a kid, she was ultimately able to lead a relatively normal life. She graduated from college, moved across the country, worked numerous jobs and owned several of her own businesses, she got married and had two daughters.
Toward the end of her 40s her sickness progressed as she developed bronchiectasis, a condition where the walls of the bronchi are thickened and no longer function properly, leading to increased infection and illness. Overtime, my sister and I both moved back home or simply stayed close by to help support our family. Our father, now retired and with a laundry list of his own health problems, is our mother’s primary caregiver and also works part time to supplement his retirement benefits. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows for the four of us, nor are my daughterly duties as a not-quite-thirty-year-old-self normal, but then again, what is normal anyways?
Something changed in my mother the more her illness progressed. At first she fought so hard to hold onto to her independence and pride by way of denying a lot of what she was going through. But eventually as it became more difficult to ignore the reality of her health and physical condition, she started to align with the day to day triumphs in her journey. Small gifts started to present themselves as big blessings. Meaningful conversations, delicious meals, breathtaking sunsets, and hilarious moments started all became more impactful in not only my mother’s life, but for our whole family as well. We learned to have fun together in hospital rooms, to laugh together in spite of the difficulties, and to cherish each birthday, phone conversation, and sometimes even those silly disagreements. Words like blessings, thankful, and gratitude, became frequents in our day to day vocabulary. And they were honest expressions. My mom, historically burdened by anxiety and a type-A persona, stopped losing sweat over the small stuff. It was, simply put, a remarkable transformation for all of us.
Does this mean that my family, who are still waiting for two new, healthy lungs for my mom (over 2 years on the transplant at this point), are total ‘gratitude saints’ who never experience anger, depression, stress or disappointment? Ha! Of course not. But counting our blessings has kept our spirits and likely our minds and bodies afloat throughout a lot of traumatic times. Scientific studies have shown (here you are, science friends… are you still with me?) that gratitude can actually rewire the brain, in part by releasing serotonin and dopamine, increasing our overall happiness levels. This is because when we feel gratitude or perform acts of kindness, our hypothalamus is activated, the part of our brain which regulates a lot of our critical bodily functions, releasing those happiness hormones and giving us a sort of natural high. According to UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Center, regularly expressing gratitude changes the molecular structure of your brain, and it keeps the grey matter functioning and keeps you healthier and happier.
Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and author of the books ‘Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity’ and ‘Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier’, conducted a study in which he gave 300 people journals and divided them into 3 groups. The first group he instructed to write daily lists about things they were grateful for. The second group he told to write daily lists about things that annoyed them. The third group could write daily about whatever they wanted. Emmons found that people who wrote about things they were grateful for had a much higher level of well being than the other two groups. And not only that, but they also slept better and exercised more. It helped to kickstart their brains.
Grateful people report feeling healthier overall. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to care for their health, having healthier diets, working out and staying current on doctors appointments and checkups. Physically, those who practice gratitude regularly, have stronger immune systems, suffer from less frequent aches and pains, have lower blood pressure, sleep longer, and wake feeling more refreshed. Mentally, gratitude leads to generally more positive emotions, feeling more alert, alive and awake and experiencing more joy, optimism, pleasure, and happiness. Self-confidence and self-worth is also boosted by feeling grateful as you become more aware of your support network and overall blessings in life.
What I find to be really interesting is that gratitude not only boosts your happiness level during the time of your intentional practices, but even after you stop an activity such as gratitude journaling (we’ll get into this in a minute) your happiness level continues to increase overtime. While spending a week of gratitude journaling everyday may only increase your happiness level by 2% in a week, in a months time, your happiness level will have gone up to 9%, even with just that one week of journaling. Have I got your attention now?
Humans operate on what’s called the Hedonic Treadmill, also known as the Hedonic Adaptation. This is the theory that proposes that people always return to a relatively stationary level of happiness. Going on a hike with your spouse may give you a boost, but generally your happiness level stays constant, whether you spend the day at the beach or at the DMV. Basically this means that we take the things that make us happy for granted. But by practicing gratitude and allowing yourself to reexamine what makes you happy and why, you stop ignoring what makes you happy. Being actively grateful will make you a happier person and help get you off of that (figurative) treadmill.
“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Dr. Emmons said. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.” He believes a successful gratitude practice starts with recognizing what you’re grateful for, acknowledging it and appreciating it. He recommends establishing a daily journaling practice to remember gifts, grace, benefits, and things enjoyed.
So here are just a few ideas on how to call in more gratitude to your life:
Implement Rituals of Gratitude
- Try ending each day with Emmons’ suggestion of gratitude journaling. List people, places, and things that make you happy and feel at ease. It doesn’t have to take very much time, but is a really nice way to wind down before bed, preparing your mind and body for sleep.
- When you wake up in the morning, smile and express thanks for being alive! Maybe you can develop your own prayer of gratitude for the brand new day, fresh start, new opportunities.
- Whether or not you’re a spiritual or religious person, try expressing gratitude before your next meal. Can you remember to do it at least once a day? Whether it’s to the person who made the meal, the people who grew the food, or to the plants or animals themselves, expressing thanks and acknowledging the source of the meal, will certainly make you more mindful, naturally boosting your happiness.
- Start with those closest to you- tell your loved ones how much they mean to you or the small things that they do on a daily basis that you appreciate.
- Express gratitude to strangers! The next time you’re in a public bathroom and there’s a cleaning person taking out the trash or sweeping, tell them ‘thank you’ and really mean it. You may make their day and you’ll most certainly walk away feeling happier.
- Write a letter to someone who’s had a positive impact on you, whether it’s been in a big or small way.
A Few More Gratitude Rituals
- Try meditation and other mindfulness practices. In order to be grateful, you must first be present. Sometimes slowing down and creating space is all your mind needs to evoke thankfulness. (For more tips on mindfulness, check out our last blog).
- Get out and volunteer! Sometimes all you need to feel grateful for you have is to gain a bit of perspective. Plus helping others will also help release those happiness hormones.
- Look in the mirror. Find a daily routine like brushing your teeth or putting on your makeup that reminds you to think about something you really like about yourself.
The bottomline is that we could all benefit from a boost in our lives, whether you feel everything is going pretty smoothly, or maybe you relate to my story with my family. None of us live completely stress-free lives. We’re human! Stress comes with the job. Our brains are not designed to make us happy, they’re designed to keep us safe, and thus our normal state is worry and stress. Most of us are constantly listening for that ‘rustle in the bushes’ that signals danger or distress.
So whether your stress comes from work, health issues, raising your kids, financial burdens, or anything else, I invite you to try out an attitude of gratitude, just to see if it makes a difference. Sounds doable, doesn’t it? It is. Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we have access to everyday. But like any skill or exercise, you need to implement it into your daily life and actively work at it. The more you do this, the easier it becomes. So what are you grateful for today?