The power of an attitude of gratitude


Gratitude is often discussed by families on Thanksgiving Day as we gather around the dining room table and take turns citing what we’re thankful for before delving into our delicious meals. But what is gratitude and how can expressing appreciation for what we have and feel alter our physical and mental health? 

Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” and is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace or graciousness. It’s an appreciation for the tangible and intangible things we have in our lives. Gratitude helps us connect to the world outside of ourselves and with others. 

The connection to others we feel when expressing gratitude releases oxytocin in the brain. Once the hormone is produced in the hypothalamus, it’s released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. When moving throughout the body, oxytocin can regulate emotional responses and encourage social behaviors, almost encouraging the feelings of trust, empathy and communication. 

Oxytocin is linked to serotonin and dopamine, making the trio known as the “happy hormones.” The hormones work as a team; when the brain releases dopamine and serotonin levels rise, oxytocin is produced.  

When practiced, daily gratitude is shown to improve sleep, heighten mood and boost immunity. Studies also show a decrease in the symptoms of depression and anxiety, chronic pain and a reduction in the risk of disease. 

The simple act of sitting for a few moments upon waking and thinking of someone or something you are grateful for is an easy start. Some prefer to keep a gratitude journal at their bedside to jot down a few things each morning they are thankful for. Others write a gratitude list on their phones and send them to loved ones who send their lists in return. Another option is to end the day in gratitude with time set aside to reflect on the day and write a paragraph or list in summary.  

Harvard Health has the following tips for cultivating more appreciation in your life: 

  • Write a thank-you note. Nurturing relationships by writing a note or email communicating your gratitude for someone’s influence on your life. Remember to occasionally write one to yourself.  
  • Spend time mentally thanking someone. Think of someone’s generous acts and spend time mentally praising the person.  
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Use it daily. 
  • Count your blessings. Set aside time each week to write down your blessings and all that went well during the week. Be detailed about how you feel.   
  • Pray. Daily prayer for religious people can improve one’s health. 
  • Meditate. Focus on a word and visual all that you are thankful for.