Why gratitude is good for you
On the eve of Victoria’s inaugural Thank You Day public holiday on 23 October, experts say showing gratitude can be good for our health.
Everyone loves a public holiday. But this year there’s extra reason to be grateful for the state-wide downing of tools scheduled for Friday 23 October. While the Grand Final Eve public holiday has become another COVID casualty, thanks to the AFL competition decamping to Brisbane, in its place for this year is Thank You Day.
The reframing of the holiday is designed to show gratitude to everyone who has made sacrifices to stem the spread of COVID-19. Victorians have certainly had to dig deep to grapple with rolling lockdowns and their attendant deprivations. But far from being a one-day-only proposition, practising gratitiude can change your life for the better.
From a selfish point of view, gratitude is good for us. How’s that for a paradox? The field of positive psychology was spawned only two decades ago, but its body of scientific evidence is compelling. Study after study has found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed, says clinical psychologist Lynne Woolfson.
“When a person is unable to appreciate good events, and overemphasises bad or unfortunate experiences, it greatly affects their ability to flourish, to be calm and be happy,” she says.
One study at Indiana University found that students tasked with writing a letter of gratitude to someone else once a week for three weeks showed significantly better mental health four to 12 weeks afterwards compared with students who either wrote down negative emotions or had counselling alone.
The cultivation of positive emotions such as gratitude has been found to work on a physical as well as mental level. It lowers stress, depression and anxiety, while the release of feel-good hormones helps improve sleep, heart health and the immune system.
Gratitude is a feedback loop, explains Lynne. Being grateful releases neurotransmitters in our brains that make us feel good. When positive things happen, we feel better, which makes us think better thoughts and so we continue on the loop of doing good things in order to make others and ourselves feel better in general.
Of course, some people are naturally optimistic and positive, while others are much more predisposed to glass-half-empty gloominess. “The good news is that gratitude is not a genetic predetermined trait,” says Lynne. “It can be learned.”
Not at all. Practising gratitude doesn’t mean turning into Pollyanna, says Deborah Jepsen from Melbourne Child Psychology. “Gratitude is simply cultivating a genuine appreciation for what we already have.”
Essentially, it’s a way of pausing briefly to reflect on something good you have in your life right now, instead of always striving towards something in the future such as that work promotion, the new car or the house renovation.
In other words, it’s living in the now and finding the good in our realistic, everyday, messy lives – not in the future when we will finally achieve all we want and be happy (or so we would like to imagine).
Like AFL footballers putting in their hours of practice on the training field, you too can work on your gratitude muscle. “Gratitude is an attitude,” says Lynne, “it’s a choice.” She explains that neural pathways in the brain can be rewired by the regular application of grateful thoughts. Even when times seem stressful, you can be grateful for a warm cup of tea, for a sunset, for a comfortable chair or a smile from a stranger.
Writing down things for which you’re grateful can be a powerful tool (no fancy journal needed, although if that’s your thing, go for it). Write something down on a scrap of paper, count your blessings in your head, or go and tell someone what they mean to you.
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku – which translates as ‘forest bathing’ – is a classic example of gratitude in action. Simply go out into nature, leaving the distraction of your phone behind. Breathe deeply, observe the beauty around you, and simply… be.
Deborah suggests newcomers to the idea of practising gratitude start with a 30-day challenge. Each day write down three things for which you are thankful. Try being specific: for example, “I am grateful for the way my child likes to hug me,” rather than, “I am thankful for my kids.”
Write down one thing you could do to improve your life – even something small, like making the bed each day so it’s lovely to get into at night (the good news is, you don’t then necessarily have to do it). And once a week for 10 minutes, write about your imagined ideal life in detail.
“Being grateful for a 30-day challenge just attempts to make gratitude a habit, rather than something you do every now and again,” says Deborah. “We can then reprogram ourselves to look on the brighter side of life. It’s not ignoring the shadows, but shining light into the darkness, so we can see our blessings – or what we are grateful for – more clearly.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
RACV has partnered with Lifeline to support Victorians impacted by the summer bushfires and COVID-19.