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Being grateful

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Fewer stress-related illnesses, lower blood pressure levels and stronger relationships among benefits of showing more gratitude

Research shows us that focusing more on gratitude can make us happier and healthier in the long run.

Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, is one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude. He started by studying happiness and well-being and identified gratitude as an important and often overlooked factor in both.

“People talk about being blessed, they use the language, and yet we knew very little about it from a scientific view,” Emmons said.

For the past 15 years, he’s studied its benefits and the methods toward living more grateful lives, finding that gratitude has the potential to increase physical, emotional and spiritual health.

He considers gratitude to be more than a virtue—it’s an orientation toward life.

“Gratitude has the ability to heal, to energize and to transform lives,” he said. “It is an affirmation of goodness, an acknowledgement that there is good in the world and that many of the good things that happen to us come from others.”

Acknowledging the good that comes from others can, in turn, improve those relationships, according to Emmons.

“Gratitude is a social emotion,” Emmons said. “I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”

Emmons conducted a study with the Greater Good Science Center on the measureable effects of gratitude. He asked participants to keep a journal of either blessings or hassles, and he found, as expected, that those who completed this simple task in gratitude were happier overall and the happiness shows.

His research found grateful people give 20 percent more time and money to charitable causes. They have deeper bonds with their community, more satisfying relationships and are better liked by others.

Gratitude also impacts health and wellness. Grateful people have 10 percent fewer stress-related illnesses, are more physically fit and have an average of 12 percent lower blood pressure levels. It can strengthen the immune system, raise tolerance for aches and pains, improve sleep and increase exercise.

These benefits began after participants spent just a short amount of time each day, or sometimes even just once per week, focusing on the good things in their lives. The benefits increased among those who made gratitude an overall life philosophy rather than a momentary recognition.

“There’s a distinction between the short-term feeling of being grateful and saying that someone is a grateful person,” Emmons said. “A grateful person accepts all of life as a gift.”

Grateful people take the good with the bad and acknowledge the benefits of both. In fact, while he identified suffering as a common obstacle to gratitude, his research has shown that a deeper sense of gratitude can come out of suffering.

“When situations are uncontrollable, there’s a surrender that takes place that can set the stage for gratitude,” he said. “Gratefulness can heal us of past hurts as well as give us hope and inspiration. It represents a turning of the mind.”

Emmons found that subjects who kept gratitude journals not only felt better about their lives but were also more likely to make progress toward personal goals and have higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.

Among parents, setting an example of gratitude made a measurable impact on children, who Emmons said become more grateful if grateful people surround them.

“If you don’t teach gratitude, you’re teaching ingratitude,” he said. “If you’re not teaching people to be mindful of the benefits they’ve received, you’re teaching them to ignore them, that it doesn’t matter that people do things for you.”

Gratitude, though, requires humility and an understanding that somehow or other, we all really are in this together.

“In a humble dependence, we acknowledge that other people did things for us—that there are other forces that have provided this benefit for me and did for me what I could not do for myself,” Emmons said.

For people of faith, this includes an acknowledgement of the good things that come from God, and Emmons has found that people who regularly attend religious services or pray are more likely to be grateful. Faith isn’t a requirement of gratitude, but it enhances the ability to be grateful.

Remember the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

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