I’m continuing my accidental “What’s Good for You” series this month. I hadn’t really planned to create a series, but since recent research reporting seems to be focused on how to improve our mental, emotional and physical health (we really need this right now), it has just seemed to evolve that way over the past few months. I have recently explored the benefits of friendship, art and flowers, and now I will discuss a belief to which I’ve ascribed for decades – that feeling and, especially, expressing gratitude has health benefits.
One of the more valuable habits I learned from my mother was to “say thank you.” Many of us, especially those my age, grew up hearing, “Okay, now what do you say?” to someone who is nice to us, to which we dutifully answered “Thank you,” from toddlerhood. And when I was in high school, that was reinforced by a teacher who suggested that I write a personal thank-you note for an organization that honored me with an award at graduation. One of the leaders of the organization later came to my house to thank me in person for the note! Gratitude feeds on itself.
Gratitude is recognizing, accepting and acknowledging good things in your life, especially those bestowed upon you by others, by nature itself or, if you so believe, a higher power. It connects us to one another in ways that feeling entitled do not. Studies have shown that there are many benefits to feeling and expressing gratitude, both to the giver and receiver of thanks. Gratitude can make you happier and more optimistic, and can improve work and personal relationships. My partner and I make it a point (without expectations or feeling forced) to thank one another for simple things, like bringing a snack from the kitchen when asked, putting gas in the other’s car, doing household chores, etc. As a result, neither of us feels taken for granted by the other. Receiving and expressing gratitude has effects on our physical well-being as well. Recent studies show a decrease in depression and sleeplessness as well as lowered blood pressure. In fact, we can reap the benefits of gratitude just by witnessing others express it to one another! This may also help build strong social networks.
The key to giving and receiving gratitude is that it’s not coerced, and happens spontaneously and is truly “from the heart.” As someone who has had episodes of depression all of my life, I know the frustration (and downright anger) that arises when someone tells you to “count your blessings,” or “look on the bright side,” or, worse, berates you for not being grateful for what you have while you’re in the depths of a desperate episode – the “others are so much worse off” lecture. Not only is bullying someone to be grateful unhelpful, but this lack of empathy is actually harmful, in my experience. Adding judgment and guilt to the pile of burdens someone is already carrying is nothing short of cruel.
So how would one express and receive gratitude?
- Say it! Start simply by making a point to say: “Thank you” as often as possible. Say thanks for gifts, some thoughtful action, or just someone allowing you to break into a line in traffic. If the words are uncomfortable or impossible, use a smile, or a nod, or some other form of acknowledgement. I love to send handwritten thank you notes and cards, rather than sending an email, whenever possible. Try to make it an acknowledgement of a specific action, and how it helped you. It’s old-fashioned, yes, but so appreciated. Don’t you love getting mail!? Or save a stamp and deliver it yourself. If you feel awkward handing it to someone, slip it on their desk, in their car, or on their pillow (if it’s appropriate – don’t make it weird) for them to find later. A colorful card or short note with a nice sentiment will always be welcomed by the recipient. Saying thanks not only makes the recipient feel happy and appreciated, but makes you feel good, too!
- Meditate on it. Some folks would call this prayer, and if that’s you, then by all means say a prayer of thanks. While I’m not a person who technically prays, I consider any time when I sit in silence or listening to quiet music with a sense of reverence, and try to connect to my source (I call it “the Universe” for short), to be meditation. If you don’t say “Grace” – a spoken or mindful thought of thanks for the plants, animals and makers of the food in front of you, said before you eat – consider at least a silent acknowledgement of all that went into the preparation and substance of what nurtures your body. One of the subjects I meditate on the most is how thankful I am for the people and animals, places and things in my life. It’s amazing to me how quickly I relax and my heart opens when I sit in gratitude for my abundant bounty. Especially on the days when I feel I have nothing. There’s something about feeling gratitude (even at times when you don’t believe you have much to be thankful for) that makes you feel richly blessed.
- Give a little gift. Gratitude builds on itself. If you are able, and if it’s appropriate, giving a gift of thanks is a wonderful way to “pass it on.” Even (especially) something small and of little or no monetary value will be appreciated. Think of a flower (bouquet of dandelions, buttercups, and/or daisies!), something you’ve baked or made, a (consensual) kiss or embrace, or – and this may be the most appreciated of all – the gift of your time. Spend any amount of time chatting, having a beverage, helping with a chore, or whatever you think would best express your gratitude. This works especially well with many friends and relatives who are elderly. Brighten their day!
- Be a good receiver. Try to break the habit of deflecting or negating praise or thanks from others. Often we’re thought that it’s selfish or conceited to accept compliments. Women are notorious for this: “Oh, this old thing? I was about to throw it away and decided to wear it one more time,” or “Oh, don’t mention it – it was nothing.” We’re especially humble when it comes to people commenting on our looks, or accomplishments that we’re not very confident about. We’re always our own worst critics. Get into the habit of saying a simple (or enthusiastic) “Thank you” to compliments and accolades. Once you get over the awkwardness of feeling as if you’re tooting your own horn, you’ll feel better, and so will your supporter.
- Credit others for their help in your success. This is in conjunction with being a good receiver – don’t be too humble, but don’t discount the contributions of others who helped you reach the goal – “Thank you, and (not but) I couldn’t have done it if not for the help of ______” goes a long way. A rising tide floats all boats. Spread the gratitude around, and you’ll do everyone involved a healthy favor!
There are countless ways to show your gratitude to others, and to receive the heath benefits and feelings of well-being that result. Close your eyes right now, breathe deeply, and smile … what are you thankful for?
Featured Image Credit: JohnHain on Pixabay.com