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Practicing gratitude: Science shows thankfulness can benefit body and brain

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Gratitude is deliberate, said Rachel Slick, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health clinician at UCHealth. “It’s not always inherently a part of us.”

It is something people have to practice; it is something that must be intentional.

“It’s paying attention to the good things around us,” Slick said.



But when people can incorporate gratitude into their daily lives, there are numerous social, emotional, physical and psychological benefits backed by science.

And it doesn’t mean living in a constant state of positivity, especially amid a pandemic.



“There’s so much pressure to think positive and look on the bright side,” Slick said. “But we can move toward simply noticing — we don’t have to be cheerleaders all the time.”

Noticing, she said, is a neutral place to start. People can notice the love they have in their lives. Or it can be more tangible — the sun shining or the car starting on a cold morning.

During what, for many, can feel like a worst-case scenario, said Dr. JoAnn Grace, finding things for which to be grateful “really is a counterbalance.”

Grace is the spiritual care and bereavement coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health Hospice and Palliative Care.

Counting one’s blessings during a worst-case scenario gives brains a break from thinking about the pandemic and its ripple effects, Grace said.

“It doesn’t have to be huge — it can be really simple,” she explained.

It’s about balance and not pretending that everything is OK, said Steamboat Springs counselor Colleen Clark Ray.

“Things are hard right now. . . but to acknowledge and give gratitude to the things that are important to you — and the people you love and who love you back — makes a difference in dealing with a difficult reality,” Clark Ray said.

Extensive research has been conducted on just how practicing gratitude can benefit the body and brain.

“Any time we are improving our mental health, we are improving our overall well-being,” Slick said.

Gratitude is linked to healthier habits — better eating, more exercise, better hygiene and regular visits to the doctor. When people are grateful for their bodies, they tend to take better care of them, Slick said.

Gratitude also can have a positive impact on self-esteem, willpower and resilience.

Grace, Slick and Clark Ray all emphasized gratitude leading to better sleep.

“It soothes the nervous system,” Slick said.

Studies show people who spend time on positive thoughts before they go to bed — and throughout the day — fall asleep more easily and sleep better.

“Gratitude can help with recovery from substance use and misuse,” Slick said.

It can mitigate stress, reduce blood pressure and ease depression.

Gratitude also can improve relationships.

“Empathy and gratitude go hand in hand,” Slick noted.

It can improve existing relationships and help people make new friends.

Grateful people tend to act with more kindness and less aggression, according to studies. Research also shows gratitude can make people more patient.

And then there’s happiness.

Gratitude has been shown to reduce toxic emotions, like frustration, regret, envy and resentment.

“Gratitude is something that leads to much more sustainable forms of happiness, because it’s not based in that immediate gratification, it’s a frame of mind,” said Emma Seppala, a happiness researcher at Stanford and Yale Universities and author of “The Happiness Track.”

Starting internally with the acknowledgment of things for which one is grateful, said Clark Lay, can guide a person’s entire day, week and even life.

“If you are spending all your time complaining, then life is going to have a negative connotation and people around you are going to be absorbed with that energy,” Clark Lay said.

Emotions, including gratitude, “drive everything that we do,” she said. “Therefore carving the space for acknowledging or acting on what we are appreciative of — like food, love, health, valuable relationships — sheds light on what we value even in challenging times.”

And while living with a grateful frame of mind is a worthy aspiration, there are smaller, deliberate things people can do every day toward that goal.

Clark Lay suggests “bookending the start and end of your day with saying something positive or giving gratitude.”

Slick advises making “time to insert gratitude when you are already winding down for the night.”

Write something down in a journal, she suggested, or think about a gratitude from the day while taking a deep breath and letting something negative go during an exhale. She also advises going over a gratitude list while stretching, meditating or sipping a cup of tea. Or express them out loud in a call with a friend or conversation with a partner.

Grace suggests some family approaches to gratitude — like filling a jar with gratitudes written on small pieces of paper at breakfast or dinner or making a holiday paper chain that grows until Christmas — each link consisting of one handwritten gratitude.

Those deliberate actions “move us to appreciation,” Grace said. “And through it all, life continues.”

A step further, said Slick, is to spread that gratitude to others, and “keep the thankfulness circulating.”

During this unprecedented holiday season, “Have grace and patience with other people. If they make a decision based on COVID that is right for them, have patience,” Slick said

The holidays can force “the concept that we always feel like we have to be joyful and celebratory, and that can actually make us feel worse,” Slick said.

This year, Slick suggests coming up with new ways to acknowledge the holidays and starting new traditions.

“There’s a lot we can’t do, and people we can’t see,” Slick said. “Gratitude allows us to be grateful for the things we do have at this time.”

There’s a quote that Slick points to: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” In it’s simplest form, it is attributed to Aesop.

A longer version is attributed to Melody Beattie: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”


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