The river of blessings flows abundantly through the valley of gratitude. –African Proverb
In the United States, some choose to celebrate Thanksgiving in late November to give thanks and reflect on our blessings. Though this holiday has a dark history that we should be aware of, we can also make it a time to give thanks and reflect on the good things in our lives.
Around this holiday, we often hear the word gratitude—so much so that the word may seem overused or even trite. But cultivating and expressing gratitude has many advantages for our health and can make us content year-round.
So, what is gratitude, and how can we reap the benefits of a gratitude practice?
The Meaning and Benefits of Gratitude
The word gratitude comes from the Latin word “gratus” or “grata,” meaning thankful, grateful, welcome, and beloved. When we express gratitude, we often feel happier. We tend to engage more with others and be more optimistic in our outlook.
There are physical, emotional, and mental health benefits from gratitude and the positive feelings it creates within us and, when we express it outwardly, to others.
Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, conducted a series of studies (along with his colleagues) on the benefits of gratitude. In these studies, over a thousand participants aged 8 to 80 practiced gratitude, usually through writing in gratitude journals. The results were astonishing.
To varying degrees, their physical health improved, including lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems, and they adopted healthier habits, such as eating healthy foods and exercising regularly.
Dr. Emmons also discovered that the participants became more compassionate and generous. They felt less isolated and exhibited higher levels of positive emotions. It is amazing to me that the research participants could experience such benefits simply by writing a few words each day.
Gratitude generates appreciation and value for positive moments, people, and experiences in our lives. We can express gratitude for the simple things in life, such as receiving a delicious cup of coffee or a friend dropping off some soup when we are ill.
It can also stem from major experiences like one’s continued good health, landing a dream job, or being able to serve others in one’s community.
Being grateful prompts us to focus on someone or something outside of ourselves. It reminds us we cannot “go it alone” on earth. We need others to move through our life’s journey, whether that is other people, plants, or elements like air and water. Acknowledging our interdependence cultivates awareness, understanding, humility, and grace.
Even events that we deem negative can invoke gratitude. During the pandemic, I was dealt a personal blow. At the time, meeting a friend face-to-face was out of the question. Due to a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in our state, the governor issued a stay-at-home order to help quell the rising cases of the virus.
My lifeline was my mother, who was miles away in another state. I spoke to her nearly every day for hours, sorting through the loss, trying to find answers, and searching for a glimmer of light at the end of what seemed like a very long and dark tunnel.
But the light came, and on the other side of that tunnel emerged a new, resurrected me. Now I understand the courage, fortitude, and wisdom I gained in the process. For that, I’m grateful. I’m also profoundly grateful to my mother, who supported me through that time.
There was only a phone line between us, but for me, it was a lifeline of hope to hold on to, building trust and belief in myself and knowing that the light would appear. My mom held that space for me, and now our relationship is deeper because of what we endured together.
Experiences such as the ones I mentioned above and the gratitude for the people who aid us along the way create value in those relationships and experiences.
When we identify what is valuable to us, we see how it leads to greater fulfillment in our lives, and we’re keen to work for more of it. So how can we cultivate gratitude in our everyday lives?
Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude can take on many forms, but the key is consistency. The practice of gratitude may be solely internal, like a gratitude journal, or it may be an expression of your gratitude for someone else. They’re both powerful—incorporate what feels right for you.
A gratitude journal identifies what you value. This doesn’t have to be a long list; you can mention five things a day that you are grateful for.
It could be family, a connection, or an attribute you gained after a challenging period. Specificity is key: record what you are grateful for on a regular basis and why.
When it seems that we are rushing through each day and are inundated with emails, it’s refreshing to receive a handwritten note in the mail.
There’s a level of intimacy in a personal note that emails cannot match. It’s written in the person’s handwriting, and the message is uniquely theirs. They took the time to write a note, buy a stamp, address an envelope, and put it in the mail.
There’s also the permanence of handwritten notes. After my father’s passing, I discovered numerous letters I had sent him over the years in his desk drawer. In those notes, I expressed gratitude for the education I received and the important life lessons he taught me.
Finding those letters that I wrote to my father years ago moved me and brought into focus our special bond. I felt grateful to have him as a father and for the moments we shared together.
Handwritten notes can serve as keepsakes. My mother saved letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother (and vice versa) while he was in the Navy.
He wrote her poems, songs (my grandmother studied opera at Northwestern and was aspiring to be an opera singer), and love letters.
Now these letters are precious mementos for our family to remember our grandparents and their union. Their letters are a reminder of our shared history, and I’m grateful to both of my grandparents for their kindness, generosity, and enduring love.
My grandparents celebrating an anniversary. They loved to dance together.
Like handwritten notes, calling someone to share how much they mean to you reaps many benefits, including creating a stronger bond—one that’s filled with vulnerability and appreciation.
This doesn’t have to be complicated; a simple “Thanks so much for your support at the meeting last week, it meant the world to me,” expresses your gratitude in a specific way and is sure to warm the heart of the recipient.
As we draw closer to the holiday season, I hope you feel encouraged to find ways to develop and express gratitude. By being grateful, we form stronger bonds, appreciate the experiences that have shaped us, and even make ourselves and others healthier and happier. It’s a simple, undemanding practice that can yield a lot of benefits.
May this holiday season be a time of joy, peace, and contentment in your lives.