Giving thanks can make you happier

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When life seems overwhelmingly stressful, reminding ourselves of the good things we have can help us cope with the bad stuff. An attitude of gratitude can improve mental health in this difficult time of pandemic.

Gratitude is a mindfulness strategy for depression, anxiety and toxic lifestyle habits. It can retrain the brain to be kind and compassionate.

Melody Beattie, author of numerous self-help books, described benefits of gratitude this way: “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 clarify. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself. Some people are very good at finding the positives in life and cultivating gratitude. Others may feel stuck in a negative narrative that increases hopelessness.

We all intuitively know that being grateful is a good thing. Research on gratitude has demonstrated that it can increase self-esteem, make us more resilient, decrease depression, improve blood pressure, improve sleep and increase physical exercise.

Keeping a daily gratitude journal can shift our story to a hopeful and more positive one. In a 2003 study, adults wrote down five things they were grateful for during the week for a period of 10 weeks. Results showed the people writing about gratitude were 25% happier than people who wrote down their day’s frustrations or simply listed the day’s events. People writing daily about their gratitude reported feeling more optimistic about the future. They felt better about their lives. They participated in one and a half hours more exercise per week than the control groups who weren’t writing about gratitude.

Another study revealed that writing about gratitude once a week, such as on a Sunday night, was sufficient for participants to feel the benefits.

Discover the power of a gratitude journal for yourself. It’s simple. Write five things that you were grateful or thankful for today (such as health, nice talk with a friend, accomplishing a task) or list things that bring joy, happiness or abundance into your life. If you get stuck, think outside the box. Think of those non-obvious things to be grateful for. Five is usually the number suggested, but even one thing can have benefit.

If you don’t know where to begin, try these gratitude journal prompts from poet and educator Linda M. Rhinehart Neas:

• What are you thankful for about yourself?

• Who in your life fills you with gratitude?

• What are the things that bring you happiness?

• When do you feel the most grateful?

• Write about a time when you traveled and found yourself filled with gratitude.

• What are the traditions in your family around giving thanks?

• Who celebrated giving thanks? Why are you grateful for their presence?

If you are forgetting to do your journal, I recommend setting a daily alarm or calendar reminder. A regular dose of gratitude can help us build strength and resilience to get through these tough times.

Sandi M. Karr, M.Ed., LCPC, LAC, is the director of Behavioral Health Services at RiverStone Health and can be reached at 406-247-3350.