Boosting Happiness and Health by Cultivating Gratitude

As we continue to deal with the fallout from COVID-19, we can quickly become overwhelmed, and it’s easy for unpleasant emotions to dominate our awareness. But we can train our brains to be more positive, even in times such as this, by consciously cultivating gratitude. Gratitude is a mind-set that enables us to seek out new experiences. It creates and maintains the positive attitude of the explorer in each of us. And it helps us to overcome challenges that without it, may feel insurmountable. It also deepens our connection to others, giving us the courage to reach out, and broadening our perspective.

We cannot stop the waves but we can learn to surf

Happiness is causal and brings more benefits than just feeling good. Happy people have been shown to be more successful, more socially engaged and healthier than unhappy people. Researchers studied the impact of emotions on illness and discovered that focusing on positive emotions boosts our immune system.

Having an attitude of gratitude does not mean never experiencing negative emotions. Negative thoughts have their place, particularly when dealing with events over which we have no control, such as a global pandemic. Regardless of our thinking style, most of us find such events extremely stressful. Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude helps us to avoid being overwhelmed by day-to-day stressors by training our brains to notice the positive. Keeping our gratitude higher than our expectations keeps things in perspective.

Shifting to a more optimistic mindset

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like fear, envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.

But gratitude is not just good for our brains. It improves our physical health, too. Positive psychology research published in American Psychologist shows that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains, exercise more often and have regular medical check-ups. They also sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal fifteen minutes before bed helped them to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Keeping a gratitude journal to remind us to count our blessings is a powerful way to focus on the positive aspects of life when there seem to be more negatives than we can count. It’s a positive way to shift our mindset, and build a book of good memories to look back on years later.

Each heartbeat pumps 20 percent of the blood in our bodies to our brains. The harder we think, the more oxygen the brain uses. Of the 50,000 thoughts that run through our minds each day, 70 percent are negative. imagine what we could achieve if we could focus all that brainpower on the good stuff.

Consciously contemplate the good

Everyday moments hold opportunities to practice optimism if we look at them through a lens of gratitude. Focusing on the positive each day can shift our perspective. Writing down the good things in our lives helps us keep them in mind. Writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes before bed every day can help you sleep better, as reflecting on moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

By writing down things we are grateful for every day for a week and then looking back on the list, we can shift our perspective and appreciate the small gifts and simple pleasures that we so often overlook, and which may seem trivial in times of crisis. This may feel awkward in the beginning, as we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative in our lives, but persistence counts. Within a few weeks, you may find that this new task shifts your mindset to a more positive one.

Put it in writing

Expressing gratitude to those who you are thankful to have in your life is a powerful way to boost your own happiness. Writing a note of appreciation shifts the focus from ourselves for a moment, and on to the other person. By recognizing and acknowledging the impact others have in our lives, we not only make them feel good, but we also feel good ourselves.

Extending the appreciation of the good in life by sharing our observations with others has been known to increase happiness both for the person doing the sharing and the recipient of the message. A gesture in the form of a handwritten thank-you note or even an email to let employees know how much you appreciate them goes a long way to gaining loyalty and building trust. Employees who feel appreciated and valued become ambassadors for the team and the company, and the return on that investment is immeasurable.

Pay it forward

Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Gratitude, through a conscious awareness and repeated focus on the good things that come our way, amplifies our appreciation of both our blessings and our benefactors. While different personality traits may predispose individuals to different levels of well-being, in her book The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky writes: “Your actions, thoughts, and words account for 40 percent of your happiness, which is significant.” By consciously cultivating gratitude, we can boost our happiness and our health, two things that the world needs more than ever right now.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

Related: Finding Your Resilience During Turbulent Times