There’s more benefit to saying “Thank You” than keeping Mom happy. A growing body of research shows that expressing gratitude can help make you happy, too. Studies have shown that people who make an effort to express gratitude can strengthen relationships, reduce depression, deal with tough times better, improve sleep and even improve their health.
According to Jessica Englehart, LPCC-S, ATR, RYT, a senior clinical consultant with OhioHealth Outpatient Behavioral Health, being grateful is about being open to seeing things from a new perspective.
“Life can give us pain, difficulty and stress. Bad stuff may be there, but joy and blessings are, too,” explains Englehart. “How we manage and perceive what we’re experiencing is what makes a difference.”
It’s All About Perspective
There’s physiology involved with gratitude, Englehart explains. For our brain to register that it sees something, impulses that hit our eye’s retina have to interact with both the thinking and emotional parts of our brain.
Eighty percent of how we actually perceive information is influenced by memories of our past experiences, assumptions, fears, desires and goals — our perception is shaped by our thoughts and feelings. Two people who see the same thing can see (or feel) it totally differently.
Understanding that past emotions, thoughts and feelings influence so much of what we see can help us be open to the fact that there’s another perspective available, allowing us to find gratitude in even tough situations. Englehart says when we practice gratitude, our bodies — physically and mentally — adapt, for the better.
“Our tendency to perceive threat and danger is a hardwired adaptation built in for our survival. Part of widening our perception is being aware of this tendency and practicing maintaining perspective through active recognition of life’s joys.
“When we shift from feeling victimized or at the mercy of life to practicing gratitude, it creates more neural pathways in the brain, more appreciation, and more opportunities for health and healing.”
Englehart explains that practicing gratitude improves resilience, increasing the flow of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) and serotonin (a natural anti-depressant) in the brain.
“An attitude of gratitude puts us back in the driver’s seat, a position of greater agency and empowerment,” she says.
Build Your Gratitude Muscle
So how can we be better at expressing gratitude? Englehart says it’s like anything else we want to get better at: practice.
“Gratitude isn’t developed overnight,” she says. “It takes practice to create healthy habits and effort to work against natural tendencies. Over time, we get better at seeing the larger picture and recognizing and redirecting thoughts.”
Englehart says the simplest way to practice gratitude is through the act of saying thank you. The benefit comes from the interaction required to take the time to thank someone, whether it’s for a gift, for holding a door or saying “bless you” after a sneeze.
“On the surface, it may not seem to matter,” says Englehart. “But the simple act of saying ‘thank you’ is free, and conveys to others that what they did had an impact on you. It’s a way to nurture relationships, the one thing that’s been shown to most influence a person’s quality and length of life.”
Best Way to Teach Gratitude Is to Live It
Practicing gratitude can be a family affair, too. Giving yourself a gratitude workout is the best way to teach kids how to do the same.
“Talk through what you’re grateful for with kids,” says Englehart. “Maybe it’s around the dinner table, and everyone shares one thing that happened that day they’re grateful for. When kids see people they love expressing gratitude, they’re more likely to follow the example.”
Being grateful by changing your perspective can help you deal with annoying situations and, who knows, maybe help dial down your blood pressure, too. Englehart says finding things to be grateful for in a frustrating situation changes your perspective — reframing the situation to discover and appreciate joys in it.
“When my husband’s snoring wakes me up and I feel frustrated because I can’t get back to sleep, I can shift my perspective to gratitude for a husband who’s healthy and home, for shelter and a bed. That shift allows space and grace to fall back to sleep,” she says. “You don’t have to get hooked by frustration. When you’re intentional with your attention in a situation, you can live with greater ease and more peace.”
Want to branch out beyond yourself? Explore how to show gratitude toward others.