Practicing Gratitude

Like many, I am thinking about gratitude as Thanksgiving approaches, and trying to put more effort into practicing gratitude, with the hopes of cultivating habits that last beyond the holidays.

Gratitude just seems to me a critical element of a happy life, and social science research supports that intuition.

Practicing gratitude doesn’t necessarily cure anxiety or depression, but it improves well-being and happiness for those who do and don’t have mental illness struggles alike.According to Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, gratitude is one of the most efficient therapeutic practices–meaning, it can have significant and lasting impacts on mental health for relatively small time investments.

In addition to the many and deep effects gratitude has on emotional well-being, gratitude contributes to physical health. In one of my last family life courses, my professor talked about how gratitude improves Heart Rate Variability. Heart Rate Variability refers not only to a heart that can accelerate and calm down easily, but a heart rate that has a wider different between inhalation (faster heart rate) and exhalation (slower heart rate).

Paul J. Mills said, ““We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” said Mills.

“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health.”

Gratitude also appears to reduce cellular inflammation, as well as improve sleep.

This is true even if your life isn’t going as well as you’d like–perhaps especially then. Truly, none of us live perfect lives, and all of us have lived through periods of great trial and loss and despair. Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean saying that things aren’t hard. There have been times in my life when my list of gratitude was seemingly spare and certainly unconventional. Some of the things I have felt the most grateful for at certain times have included:

-marshmallows (which can dissolve under your tongue and give your blood sugar a small boost)

-IVs (dehydration is truly very difficult, and an IV always felt heaven sent when I needed it during pregnancy)

-the ability to binge-watch “House” all night (this got me through many a sleepless night as a teenager) or other shows in later years

And other things. I’ll stop there because I worry that I run the risk of being preachy, but I also do feel that gratitude is an asset in all manner of situations, even those terrible ones that feel unbearable. I think it is also worth saying that it is worth having a heart-to-heart with yourself in order to find those things that truly bless you, and allowing that list to be different than someone else’s.

Among many things, today I feel especially grateful for the social sciences, including the chance I had to major in Family Life, to take classes from professors who were passionate about family therapy and the social sciences, to learn how to read articles by family scholars and to have so many wonderful research projects related to mental health and family dynamics.

And of course, especially as a parent, I’m grateful for the wonderful family examples around me, as well as the treasure of online resources available, and the incredible support system that has made all the difference for Michael and I as we’ve started to get the hang of this parenting thing. Without the support we have, all of my study would have meant very little in terms of our ability to have a happy, healthy family.