‘Tis the Time of Year for Gratitude
The American and Canadian tradition of Thanksgiving signifies a day to share our blessings with those we cherish. It is a time of gratitude and feeling appreciation for the gifts we have received during the year in passing.
For some, the season of togetherness brings great joy. For others, it can trigger a sense of isolation, anxiety, and stress.
For those who do struggle with finding reasons to be thankful, gratitude may appear as a fake and meaningless affirmation. “After all, focusing on the good at this point is really just an excuse to cover up all the real and vital issues of the world,” they may think.
Furthermore, it may even improve your overall physical, and mental health.
This is because gratitude is more than a statement. It is an act, a practice.
In this post, I will define gratitude, explore the physical and mental health benefits of being grateful, and provide tips for enhancing this state of being.
The Definition of Gratitude
Gratitude’s meaning can change with context. It has been defined as “a moral virtue, an attitude, an emotion, a habit, a personality trait, and a coping response.” For example, gratitude has been portrayed in the research in the following ways:
- as a positive emotional response to receiving a gift or benefit from someone.
- as a state of being (an emotional reaction to an experience).
- as a dispositional characteristic.
- as an “appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” (a state and trait phenomenon)
- as a “recognition that something good happened to you, accompanied by an appraisal that someone, whether another individual or an impersonal source, such as nature or a divine entity, was responsible for it.”
- as an “important aspect of human sociality and is valued by religions and moral philosophies.”
a: appreciative of benefits received
b: expressing gratitude – grateful thanks
2 a: affording pleasure or contentment: pleasing
b: pleasing by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort alleviated
Regardless of how it is described, the emotion or act of gratitude has been well studied in research. Overall, it has been shown to have a positive impact on health and well-being.
I like the way author Melody Beattie puts it:
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity … it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
Now, that’s a lot of promises.
So, let’s look at what the science says about the benefits of gratitude.
The Benefits of Gratitude
The effects of gratitude on physical health is less studied than on emotional well-being, yet we know that the two are interconnected. Therefore, it is not surprising that researchers have reported various benefits.
Systematic Review: Gratitude for Sleep, Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar, Asthma, and Eating
In a systematic review of 19 studies, it was found that 5/8 studies showed that gratitude benefited subjective sleep quality. Blood pressure, glycemic control, asthma control, and eating behavior also demonstrated improvements, though these constructs were understudied in the literature. Other markers showed mixed results.
Studies with inconclusive results are intriguing. This could be related to the intervention used, subjects’ state of being (some are more open to feeling gratitude), and study designs. More on this topic later.
Gratitude and Healthy Behaviors
One study with over 900 Swiss adults examined whether psychological health, healthy activities, and willingness to seek help for health concerns mediated the link between gratitude and self-reported physical health, as well as age. The researchers reported that this was indeed the case, and there were some age differences on effects:
… the indirect effects for psychological health and healthy activities were stronger for older than younger adults. In other words, the mechanisms explaining why gratitude predicts health appear to differ across adulthood.
More on Gratitude and Blood Pressure
A particular study is worth highlighting here, because it reveals a connection between different states (gratitude and hostility) and heart health outcomes.
It was an older trial that explored if a 10-week gratitude intervention via telephone (“gratitude hotline”) would impact high blood pressure more than a control condition. The 82 subjects were mostly low-income, inner-city, African-American patients, a population that often has more resistant hypertension. The researchers assessed blood pressure, hostility, gratitude scores, and demographic data.
The results indicated statistically significant decreases in the gratitude groups’ systolic blood pressure. They also noted an increase in gratitude scores that was associated with positive health behavior changes and a significant inverse correlation between gratitude and hostility.
This study provides more evidence for the heart-brain connection.
Sleeping Well with Gratitude
A 2-week gratitude intervention elicited many benefits in a randomized trial with 119 women. It increased hedonic well-being, optimism, and sleep quality and decreased diastolic blood pressure. The rise in well-being was directly related to the improved sleep and blood pressure effects.
This pointed out yet another link between well-being and heart health, as well as sleep.
Emotional and Mental Health
Brain Changes with Gratitude
1. One study with depressed and anxious subjects evaluated how gratitude changed neural activity in the brain using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery). The groups were divided into a gratitude writing intervention and the other to a therapy as usual. After three months, brain changes from a “Pay It Forward” task was assessed.
Researchers found that the brain region activity associated with self-reported gratitude was related to areas linked to guilt motivation and a desire to help. Specifically, this was through mediating neural modulation of the medial prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, they stated that this simple gratitude intervention caused lasting effects in the brain three months later.
2. Interestingly, another study also verified that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. However, changes in the anterior cingulate cortex were also reported. In this experiment, the brain circuitry was linked to areas related to moral cognition and positive emotion.
These differences could be due to the different contexts. In this trial, gratitude was precipitated by asking the subjects to imagine that they were the receivers of benevolence, versus the givers of it in the previous one.
3. Other experiments with brain imaging have also demonstrated shifts in brain activity in other regions. These include the mesolimbic reward and basal forebrain regions (ventral tegmental area, hypothalamus, and septum). A link to increased gray matter in the inferior temporal gyrus has been reported as well.
Again, the tasks and contexts varied between these studies. This could account for the different findings.
Well-being and Mental Health
- Overall well-being
- Positive affect
- Subjective happiness and life satisfaction
- Anxiety and depression
- PTSD symptoms
- Stress effects
- Less envious feelings
- Job-related well-being
- Body image
- Social connection and relationships
- Management skills
- Workers’ satisfaction
Summary on Enhancing Gratefulness
As you can see, gratitude provides a myriad of physical, emotional, social, and relational benefits.
It should be noted that not every trial reports positive effects on gratitude, though the vast majority of them seem to find a net benefit. A review article noted that this inconsistency in outlier studies could relate to the conditions and circumstances in clinical testing, as well as subject characteristics.
This brings me to the point that there is no one right way to do gratitude. What may generate gratefulness for you may be related to your personality, morals, and the context you are in. You may have to play around with different methods to see what works for you (i.e., what makes changes to your neural connectivity). 🙂
Practical Tips to Increase Gratitude
Below are some tips from the AANMC website that may boost gratitude:
- Start each day thinking about three things for which you are grateful. It doesn’t have to be big. It could be your warm cup of coffee, soft fuzzy slippers on your feet, or the view from your kitchen window.
- Give thanks before meals, even if you’re not religious. Be grateful for the farmer who grew the food, the grocery store that sold it, and the person who prepared the meal.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before bed, write down anything that occurred during the day for which you are thankful.
- Write thank you notes to others.
- Think about anyone in your life who has touched or inspired you.
Essential Oils for Emotions and Gratitude Oil Blend
Another way to impact your mood and enhance your well-being is through smell. This is because this sense is linked directly to our emotional brain.
This is why an essential oil blend for gratitude can help to support those who are struggling with loss, family triggers, or just being stressed out from the extra hassles. Basically, we all may need a little “olfactory boost” of gratitude at certain times.
To keep with the spirit of the season, my upcoming posts about essential oils will be aimed to help you stay in a state of more ease, calm, and peace during the holidays. Topics will include a summary of the gratitude blend, the science behind why “emotions in a bottle” are legit, and other information on additional single oils and combinations.
So, be sure to keep following my blogs and videos. You can also check out my essential oils database under the last section at the bottom, “Essential Oils for the Holiday Season.”
A Thanksgiving Wish and Opportunity for Us All
Now that we know the benefits of gratitude, wouldn’t it be great if we could keep it as a focus the whole year through?
What I love about the holiday season is that it provides an opportunity to shine some light into the darkness. We can’t escape that life will bring with it trauma and tragedies. With the proper tools and support; however, we can take moments like these to help to transform pain into progress.
If we allow for a pause and space for growth, rebirth, and more resiliency, maybe we can enhance tolerance and kindness on this day and every day moving forward.
Sending you many blessings for a Happy Thanksgiving.
I hope you can find ways to enhance your own gratitude, enjoy the scents of the season, and find some stillness within a warm embrace of these holy times.
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal and Mood Support
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Positive psychology: https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-gratitude-research-questions/
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.