“It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.”
On Thanksgiving, people around the United States expressed gratitude for the bounty of their lives. However, many may not realize that in doing so, they are also improving the quality of their health. Moreover, they are increasing their life expectancies.
The scientific evidence is conclusive when it comes to mood, outlook, and health. Happy people live 7-10 years longer than unhappy people. Additionally, optimistic people have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimistic people. But how can you become happier and more optimistic in your world view?
The How Of Happiness
In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How Of Happiness, the author teaches us how 50% of our propensity for happiness is based on a genetic set point, something we can’t influence very much, 10% is based on life circumstances (such as getting the promotion, finding The One, or achieving the creative dream), and 40% is “intentional activity” that we can influence with our behavior.
That means we can be up to 40% happier in our lives without changing our circumstances one bit, and one of the key intentional activities is the practice of gratitude.
Research shows that consistently grateful people are happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more helpful, more empathic, more spiritual, more forgiving, and less materialistic. They’re also less likely to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, neurotic, or sick.
In one study, one group of participants were asked to name five things they’re grateful for every day. Another group was asked to list five hassles. Those expressing gratitude were not only happier and more optimistic, but they also reported fewer physical symptoms. They less frequently struggled with issues like headache, cough, nausea, or acne. Other gratitude studies have shown that those with chronic illnesses demonstrate clinical improvement when practicing regular gratitude.
Severely depressed people instructed to list grateful thoughts on a website daily were found to be significantly less depressed by the end of the study when compared to depressed people who weren’t asked to express gratitude. And we know that depression is a significant risk factor for disease.
For more surprising scientific proof about how to be ultimately healthy, read Mind Over Medicine or watch my public television special Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine (check listings here). (Hint: Being generous and radical self care are good for your health, so try giving generously of your time and love this holiday season while also focusing on your own self care!)
How Does Gratitude Boost Happiness?
According to Dr. Lyubomirsky, gratitude:
- Promotes savoring of positive life experiences
- Bolsters self-worth and self-esteem
- Helps people cope with stress and trauma
- Encourages caring acts and moral behavior
- Helps build social bonds, strengthen existing relationships, and nurture new relationships (and we know lonely people have twice the rate of heart disease as those with strong social connections)
- Inhibits harmful comparisons
- Diminishes or deters negative feelings such as anger, bitterness, and greed
- Thwarts hedonistic adaptation (the ability to adjust your set point to positive new circumstances so that we don’t appreciate the new circumstance and it has little affect on our overall health or happiness)
How To Practice Gratitude
You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy the benefits to your health and happiness that accompany gratitude.
Keep a gratitude journal.
Ponder 3-5 things you’re currently grateful for (it’s okay if these are mundane things!) and write them down. Data suggests that doing this once per week may be most beneficial, but if you find that doing it daily works best for you, go for it!
Cultivate An Attitude of Gratitude.
Journaling may not be your cup of tea, so you might be better off just training yourself to think grateful thoughts. Try noticing one ungrateful thought you have each day and switching it around to something you can be grateful for.
Vary Your Gratitude Practice.
Try journaling sometimes, thinking grateful thoughts, speaking what you’re grateful for at dinner time, making art about what you’re grateful for, but shake it up! We tend to get bored easily, so the practice of gratitude works better when we change how we’re grateful.