The benefits of giving thanks.

Photo by Freshh Connection (Unsplash)
Photo by Freshh Connection (Unsplash)

Giving thanks is undervalued in our society. Saying ‘thank you’ to those who help us, be it a friend, a waiter, a janitor, a professor, or anyone really, has become a robotic motion. This needs to change. Gratitude should be an active, conscious, and reflective exercise because it has social and personal health benefits for anyone who practices.

Numerous studies have shown that something as simple as keeping a gratitude journal and periodically reflecting on the little (and big) things that deserve our gratefulness can significantly increase feelings of happiness, improve our sleep, make us more empathetic and compassionate, and even strengthen our immune systems.

So, what exactly is gratitude? UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons tries to define the concept in his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Gratitude has been described as a feeling, an attitude, a way of living, but amongst all these, Emmons highlights two key components that sets apart gratitude from any normal emotion: acknowledgement and recognition.

Emmons says that for there to be gratitude, first there has to be an acknowledgement of what is good in our lives. Sometimes this takes a lot of practice considering that humans suffer from negative bias; our brain is hardwired to fixate on things that do not bring us pleasure because negative events generate a longer lasting neurological response than good events. However, when practicing gratitude, it is important to seriously analyze that all of life’s components summed up are good and worth living for.

The second part is recognizing where all the good things in our lives come from. More often than not, the source will exist outside ourselves. Being able to recognize the kindness of others and the value of their service to us is extremely important. Gratitude, then, requires humility.

Both these components, acknowledgement and recognition, show that gratitude is an active process that requires effort and willingness to be positive and think about others when we so often fall into the trap of negativity and selfishness.

Most studies that have been done around gratitude relate this practice to happiness. A study done by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania showed increased happiness in participants after writing a note of thanks to someone they had not had the chance to properly thank. Other studies focused on relationships and showed that couples that take time to show gratitude towards their partners have a more positive relationship.

Gratitude has a lasting positive impact in almost all areas of our lives: social, health, personal, career, and emotional. It is, however, not easy to cultivate. Much like habits, which I talk about in another article, becoming grateful is a long process that requires some patience.

One good place to start is to record for five minutes, in whatever type of media you prefer, what you are grateful for each day. For five minutes our minds will be engaged in a positive exercise that brings us a little surge of happiness. However, by making gratitude a habit, we will start noticing changes in our lives such as a more optimistic outlook, a better response from those who surround us, more motivation to do things that are good for us, increased emotional resilience, less materialism, amongst many other benefits that have been proven to be correlated with mindful gratitude practices.

Christmas is approaching, and whether you are Christian or not, the energy of this time of year is infectious. For those of us who know the origins, it is a time to be grateful; it is a time to acknowledge all the good in our lives and recognize God who gave it to us.

Take this as an opportunity to start practicing gratitude, to notice those moments when you were given something that made you even a little happy. Remember that, in the long run, just a simple thank you note, five minutes of journaling, or a little giving-back act can impact your life in the most meaningful way.