Attitude of Gratitude: A Recipe for Real Health
Tomorrow, people across the country will gather together, sit down to a communal meal, and give thanks for the good things in their lives. It's a ritual that most of us look forward to each year.
Far-flung family members return home. We touch base with friends and loved ones we may not have had much contact with through the year. We rekindle relationships that may have fallen by the wayside. We talk together, cook together, eat together. We share stories and laugh together. We might even watch football together. We spend the day in the glow of real community, full and happy and appreciative of what we have.
Then we rush out for Black Friday shopping and forget gratitude till the next Thanksgiving.
You don't need a special day to give thanks
I have mixed emotions about Thanksgiving. On one hand, the tradition of setting aside a day for prayers of thanks-giving is as old as humanity, and I find it beautiful that even in our increasingly secular society such a tradition still exists. On the other hand, it seems that the real meaning of Thanksgiving — thanks giving — becomes increasingly corrupted as the years go by. It makes me cringe to hear someone call this quiet holiday "Turkey Day."
Just as Christmas has been commercialized as a sales tool, so Thanksgiving has been increasingly stripped of its meaning. What's the first thing which comes to mind for most people when they hear the word "Thanksgiving?"
Mountains of food. Overeating. Treating yourself to things you'd never eat during the normal course of things. It's become a celebration of gluttony, not a celebration of gratitude and thanks. And that's a shame. Because gratitude is important.
We don't have to wait for Thanksgiving to roll around in order to give thanks. We can make a habit of being grateful starting any time, and we can do it every week or even every day. We also need to remind our families to do this. Why? Because not only does it make us happier, it actually makes us healthier too.
What do I mean by gratitude?
Before I talk about gratitude and your health, I want to clarify just what gratitude is. It's a slightly scary word for some people. It's come to be associated with a sense of obligation or indebtedness. I'm not sure how this has happened — maybe it's because too many of us only express our gratitude when someone has done us a favor. Whatever the reason, this association makes some people shy away from the word.
Real gratitude, though, has nothing to do with obligation. Just like we can be sorry even when something isn't our fault, so too can we be grateful without being indebted to someone or something. Gratitude is simply a pure and honest appreciation — an actual thanks giving — for the blessings in our lives. No strings attached.
Practicing gratitude on a regular basis is a power version of "looking on the bright side." And it makes you a happier person with a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and better overall health.
Gratitude has a real effect on your body
Gratitude has been a hot topic over the past few years, and in the past decade there have been a surprising number of serious scientific studies of its effects on our wellbeing. If you're a person who tends to count your blessings, the results may not startle you. If you're not, you may well be surprised. Taking time to count your blessings daily or even weekly has been shown to:
• Lower your stress levels
• Improve your sleep
• Strengthen your immune system
• Boost your self esteem
• Reverse depression
• Lower your blood pressure
• Make you less prone to headaches and other physical complaints
• Deepen your connections to other people and make you more empathetic
Research also suggests that actively practicing gratitude may make you less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and may even add years to your life.
That's a pretty impressive list of benefits. What do you need to do?
Harnessing the power of gratitude
It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and lose track of what's really important. It's also easy to overlook the little things when big things get in the way. The truth is, there's always something to be grateful for, no matter what's going on in your life. It may be something big, it may be something small. It may even be a tiny of pinhole of light during the darkest hour before the dawn. But it's there.
I have three suggestions for incorporating gratitude into your life on a regular basis.
The first is very simple — tell people you appreciate them. Make a point of telling your spouse, or your children, or your grandchildren, that you appreciate their actions. It's easy to take people for granted. A simple "I appreciate that" or "I'm grateful that you did that," is a positive thing for both of you, and starts a positive cycle.
A "gratitude journal" is a good tool for a lot of people. It's just what it sounds like: a journal just for writing down things you're grateful for. Each day, or even once per week, take a few minutes and look back over the day or week and consider at least one thing that you're grateful for. Write it down. Don't write anything else in this journal — keep it only for things you're grateful for. An added bonus for this technique is that any time you're feeling down, you can pull out your journal and be reminded of all the good things in your life.
Finally, add some gratitude to your evening prayers. We're quick to ask for help, but too often we forget to say "thank you." Take a moment each day to say thanks.
Gratitude makes you feel good. In fact, when you're feeling grateful it lights up the reward centers of your brain. And the more you do it, the more you want to do it. It's what one writer calls a "victorious circle." So don't save your thanks for Thanksgiving — take a little time every day to count your blessings. You might be surprised at the results.
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