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Does Gratitude do anything?
I woke up at 4:30 AM this morning, and I am NOT a morning person. I meditated, did breathwork, and could not go back to sleep. I got up feeling sluggish and irritated. I was scheduled to do a podcast on gratitude for MindBodySpirit.fm, and I didn’t want to be grouchy. That seemed like it might not go over well. So, I wrote a gratitude letter to my son. Are you supposed to sob while you write gratitude letters? I did, and my negative vibe was washed away. I was overcome with appreciation to have such an amazing person sent to me and for the privilege of raising him. It opened my heart and flipped my entire mood.
Was my experience a fluke? Are there real benefits to practicing gratitude? Or is it just that Oprah has a gratitude journal, and we love her? Is there any evidence that gratitude positively impacts us? Can we do it too much? Can we do it wrong? Read on for some surprising answers.
According to research at Indiana University, gratitude changes your brain, makes healthy people happier, and makes people who struggle with depression and anxiety happier, too. Researchers divided 300 people seeking therapy into three groups.
All groups received counseling. One group was instructed to also write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. Another group was asked to do traumatic writing, which is writing your deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group didn’t do any writing.
Gratitude improves mental health.
The group who wrote gratitude letters had better mental health outcomes, and they increased over time. It turns out that gratitude is not only a feel-good tool for those who are already happy and well, but it can bring us out of emotional unhappiness, dark places, and anxiety.
Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions.
A powerful insight gleaned from the research is that gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions. This makes so much sense because when we are ruminating in toxic emotions, hyper-analyzing negative things, churning and churning on upsetting things, we suffer. We can’t fixate on negative emotions and feel better. Instead, we become more upset and less hopeful. To practice gratitude, we must look for and identify things that we feel positively about. We are forced to detach from negativity.
Write a letter telling someone all the things you appreciate and are thankful for about them. If it feels good, share the letter. It’s a beautiful gift. But, even if you don’t share the letter, your level of happiness and mental well-being will increase.
Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain.
Gratitude’s benefits can take time, and they increase over time. There was little difference between the groups a week after the three weeks of letter writing. A significant difference was measured after four weeks, and there was an even greater difference after 12 weeks, and the brains of those who wrote gratitude letters looked different on MRI scans.
Amy Gordon wrote an article detailing the pitfalls of gratitude. She made points worth mentioning. (link to the article below)
More is not better.
In a study of gratitude journaling, people who journaled only once a week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who wrote three or more times a week were not. Gratitude can lose some of its magic if we force ourselves to do it daily.
Don’t use it to distort or distract.
Focusing on feeling grateful for someone or something who is emotionally or physically abusive or someone who you just can’t be happy with is unhealthy and bad for you.
This point stands out to me. I’ve seen many clients in turmoil as a result of being treated poorly by people they work with or love. Sometimes, in an effort to be positive, spiritual, or a “good person,” they focus on anything positive and ignore unacceptable treatment.
Gratitude done right is good for you. It does not justify or negate harm or hurt. Tell yourself the truth and take action, making changes and getting support. Then be grateful to yourself and those who helped you for putting an end to it.
An Affirmation of Goodness
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, says that gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We are affirming that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits that we receive. He says the second part of gratitude is that we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people or even higher powers give us gifts, big and small, to help us achieve goodness in our lives.
It’s powerful for us to tap into this so that we can have this awareness and feel that warm center that comes from knowing that you are loved and supported and that there’s something conspiring for your good.
Your Gratitude Practice
Ready to feel happier, more affirmed, and more loved?
Once a week, jot down a little note or a beautiful love letter to express your gratitude and appreciation for all or just any small or large thing in your life.
Commit to this practice and give it time to take root in your life.
What I’m Most Grateful For
These are some of the people on my letter list!
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