The holiday season can be exciting, stressful, happy, and sad—all at the same time. Amid all those emotions, it can be difficult to remember to take a breath and appreciate what you have. Why is that important?
Research suggests that gratitude can make people happier, improve relationships, and potentially even counteract depression and suicidal thoughts. Gratitude can also boost self-esteem.
The long answer is supported by well-studied research. "Expressing gratitude can positively change your brain," says Kristin Francis, MD, a psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. "It boosts dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters in the brain that improve your mood immediately, giving you those positive feelings of pleasure, happiness, and well-being."
Each day, as we practice gratitude, we can help these neural pathways in our brain strengthen and ultimately create a permanent grateful, positive nature within ourselves.
How gratitude makes you happy
Gratitude is associated with happiness. Expressing feelings of appreciation to others and ourselves creates positive emotions and feelings of pleasure and contentment.
Research shows that people who express gratitude are more likely to share with others freely, offer emotional support and assistance, and forgive more willingly. Being grateful is easy and has an impact on the people around us. When showing someone you appreciate them, you are encouraging them to respond in nice ways toward others—creating a chain reaction of positivity.
"Have you ever noticed how it makes you feel when you buy someone a gift or compliment them?" Francis says. "This feeling is supported by science—when you are nice to others and think kind things toward them, your emotional mood becomes more positive. Researchers have found that those who experience more positive moods have less anxiety and tend to view situations more optimistically."
How gratitude eases stress, anxiety, and depression
In a study on gratitude and appreciation, participants who felt grateful showed a reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. They had stronger cardiac functioning and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences. Over the years, studies have established that practicing gratitude allows us to handle stress better.
"When we acknowledge the small things in life, we can rewire our brain to deal with the present with more awareness and broader perception," Francis says. "By reducing stress, gratitude reduces depression and anxiety. Keeping a gratitude journal or consistently verbalizing gratitude can help manage negative emotions like guilt and shame."
How gratitude improves your physical health
Grateful people are healthy people. Practicing gratitude slows the effects of neurodegeneration and leads to decreased inflammation and lower blood pressure. Researchers have shown that when we practice appreciation, our bodies release the oxytocin hormone, which expands blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and protects your heart. Oxytocin deepens our relationships and helps us feel more connected to others. It also supports us in building a network of family and friends, which results in a longer and healthier life.
Studies have also shown that grateful people eat healthy, move their bodies more, and are less likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs.
How to cultivate happiness and health with gratitude
There are simple, easy things you can do to start a daily gratitude practice:
- Self-appreciation. Every day, practice saying five good things about yourself. It may be awkward or difficult at first, but over time it will become easier.
- Journaling. You don't need a diary with a lock to begin a journaling practice. Use a notebook, your daily planner, or even sticky notes to write down a few things you are grateful for each day.
- Make someone feel special. If you have a person in your life to whom you feel you "owe" some happiness or success, visit them in person and tell them how much they mean to you. Or, if you have a friend or co-worker that has influenced your life, make them feel special by thanking them and telling them how much you appreciate them.
- Find a "gratitude buddy." Find someone to share your daily practice with—your spouse, your child, or a friend. Set aside a few minutes a few times a week to share what you are grateful for.
"Most important, let yourself be happy," Francis says. "Be proud of any small achievement or success, acknowledge your happiness, and be thankful for the moment. Accepting happiness makes us grateful for all that we have and, over time, makes us stronger. Praising our efforts prepares us for the difficulties we may have to manage in the future."
Practicing gratitude and compassion is always essential—this intentional behavior creates a trickle-down effect. If you are kind to yourself and grateful toward others, people start taking your lead, and before you know it, the world is a kinder, more thoughtful place.