The world today seems to offer no end of sources of stress. Not all stress is bad; it can help us meet a deadline or act quickly in an emergency. But chronic stress leaves us worn out and run down, even hopeless and unable to function well in our lives. We often don’t have the option to remove the stressors themselves, but one of the ways we can effectively combat stress is with gratitude.
What is gratitude?
Psychologist Robert Emmons defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Gratitude keeps us in the present, rather than dwelling on the past or waiting for happiness that will occur in the future. It is the recognition, acknowledgment, and appreciation of what we have right now.
The benefits of gratitude – why be grateful?
Studies show that people who regularly cultivate gratitude have a greater sense of emotional well-being, higher overall life satisfaction, and a greater sense of happiness. They sleep better, have stronger relationships, and find more joy in their work.
Positivity in the mind isn’t the only result; there are real physical health benefits as well. Gratitude helps to lower the levels of cortisol, the hormone that our body produces in response to stress, leading to lower blood pressure, a healthy heart rate, and a strong immune system.
How can we achieve an attitude of gratitude?
When we are stressed and overwhelmed, gratitude can seem unnatural, or difficult to access. But it can be learned! Here are some simple practices to shift your mindset:
We might experience stress or feelings of hopelessness when we compare ourselves to others. Social media gives us instant access to an infinite stream of people and situations. If someone else’s joy or achievement causes you distress, hopelessness, or thoughts that you are not enough, see if you can flip that thought on its head and turn it into positive motivation. How can you let their story of success inspire you? Also, remember that we rarely post our worst moments online for the world to see. Be careful not to compare your own behind-the-scenes footage to someone else’s highlight reel.
Write down the things you are grateful for, either at the start of the day, or throughout the day as they occur to you. You can record these thoughts in a journal, or write them on slips of paper and put them in a jar or on a board. You can think of this as a bank of gratitude that you can make withdrawals from when you are feeling stressed and disconnected from gratitude. Remember to make regular deposits!
Say It Out Loud!
Did your partner, coworker, or a passing stranger do or say something that helped you? Let them know! Sharing your appreciation will reinforce your own positive feelings, in addition to making the other person feel valued. Imagine how that person might go about the rest of their day feeling appreciated, and how that will affect everyone else they come in contact with—a small, simple thanks can start a ripple effect of gratitude and positivity that reaches far out into the world.
Living in a state of gratitude doesn’t mean that we ignore our problems. Our lives will not magically become all sunshine and rainbows as a result of feeling grateful. But what gratitude does give us is momentum – a positive chain reaction that starts with shifting our thoughts and leads to better physical health, the mental clarity needed to solve problems, and a deeper connection with others. When we feel better, we do better. We are better equipped to take care of ourselves and others, to build and maintain the support systems we need, and to live in alignment with our needs and values. Gratitude is a good place to start.