The month of November is a time when many of us choose to reflect on the things in our lives that we are grateful for. What many don’t know however, is the impact that gratitude can have on our brains and bodies. Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive with giving or receiving a benefit from someone (Emmons & McCullough, 2004). By both giving and receiving messages of gratitude, it helps us to acknowledge the positive things in our lives. We know that gratitude has many benefits, including physical, psychological, and social benefits and that in general gratitude is associated with happiness.
Studies have shown that gratitude decreases pain, improves sleep quality, assists with emotion regulation, decreases depression and anxiety and reduces levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the brain. Additionally, the social benefits of practicing gratitude have shown that it strengthens relationships. Many researchers believe that gratitude is a “natural anti-depressant.” This has been suggested as multiple research studies have shown that practicing gratitude can release dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and norepinephrine, the feel good chemicals in our brains. People who are actively practicing more gratitude and self-care are also less likely to have as much cortisol being released from their brains.
We can practice gratitude when things are going well and also during times of increased stress. Some ways to practice gratitude daily are by keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing notes of thanks to friends, family and co-workers, making a point to acknowledge and verbally thank others that we are interacting with on a daily basis, engaging in activities like volunteering and giving back to others and keeping a gratitude jar. Sometimes practicing gratitude may be small like being grateful for having a ponytail holder on a hot day or the ability to go for a run and catch up a friend. Acknowledging all the things that you are grateful can make a stressful moment seem not quite as distressing. We can still acknowledge that stress and pain are valid and a part of life while at the same time remind ourselves that there are still many things we can have gratitude for at the same time.
As parents it is important to model for our children the importance of daily gratitude in our lives. While the month of November is a great reminder for all of us about thankfulness, we can try to make it a daily practice throughout the year. Try starting a daily routine with your own children and talking about head to toe what you are grateful for each day; my feet let me run on the playground at school, my hands painted an orange pumpkin, my mouth that ate a chocolate cupcake, my eyes that saw a green caterpillar and my ears that heard the song “Let it Go” from Frozen.