I used to think gratitude was nice but not necessarily critical. Everyone likes to be appreciated, and thanking people is just polite.
But then I started hearing about studies showing how it reduces depression, deepens relationships, improves optimism and even extends lives.
And if Harvard, Berkeley, and the Mayo Clinic all believe it's important, it’s worth taking a closer look.
What Is Real Gratitude?
Before we jump into how to create a practice of expressing gratitude, I want to share what real gratitude is and is not.
Simply saying a mindless “thank you” when someone holds the door for you isn’t necessarily real gratitude. The “Thanks!” you add to the end of an email isn’t what we’re talking about here.
To get the benefits of gratitude, you need to develop a practice of expressing real gratitude.
Let’s first explore what gratitude is not.
Gratitude isn’t thoughtless or automatic, like the examples I shared above. It’s not necessarily something you have to express; you can get the benefits of gratitude without sharing it with others.
And, it doesn’t need to be significant.
Instead, gratitude must be personally felt. You need to recognize that something good happened, it added value to you in some way, and someone or something outside you contributed to that experience.
So, what is real gratitude?
Real gratitude is specific. Think of the difference between a generic “I love you” to your partner versus saying “Thank you so much for coordinating our vacation plans. I love how you pull everything together to help our family create these memories.” Which would they feel more and remember? Which would make you feel closer to them?
At work, think of the difference between a simple “great job today!” versus saying “Thank you for pitching in to complete the project. I know it was outside your normal responsibilities, and I really appreciate you taking the time and making your contribution.”
Personal, specific gratitude can be even more basic.
Sitting here, I’m grateful for all the advances in technology over the years that are enabling me to type this post on a beautiful high-functioning laptop rather than a typewriter. I’m grateful for the quiet day I’ve had today, giving me time to write.
Before moving on, sit for a few minutes and reflect on what you can be grateful for right now.
What Are the Benefits of Gratitude?
Let's get into some of the personal, professional and medical benefits of gratitude.
1. Personal Benefits
It’s always nice to be appreciated, so it’s probably not surprising that people who consistently practice gratitude have healthier marriages, deeper relationships, and more friendships. Overall, they tend to be more social than people who less frequently express gratitude.
In the same vein, it makes sense that it can make you a kinder person. As you reflect on all you have to be grateful for, you are likely to be more forgiving of those who are less fortunate and more willing to make a positive contribution to the world.
And because grateful people tend to be well-liked and kind, others are more likely to help them, creating a continuous cycle of good.
2. Professional Benefits
Within a professional context, gratitude can provide multiple benefits as well.
Consider how much of your work life includes team projects. When you practice gratitude, you’ll reap the same benefits of deeper relationships that you see in your personal life.
Colleagues may be more willing to pitch in to help you with difficult projects and will see you as a trusted colleague or leader. When you provide sincere gratitude to people who serve as mentors or coaches, they are more likely to continue to provide you advice.
As a leader, you will also see some significant benefits. Consider how often you are required to provide criticism and negative feedback. That may, in fact, come relatively easy to you as you have developed insight into what doesn’t work. But how often do you provide positive feedback and gratitude to balance out the criticism?
Research has shown that while providing negative feedback does help set and clarify expectations, expressing gratitude actually increases motivation and can drive positive activity.
Some leaders worry that the benefits of expressing gratitude will weaken over time. In fact, appropriate levels of positive feedback continue to provide impact over time.
3. Medical Benefits
First of all, gratitude can make it easier to fall asleep and can help you sleep longer and better. Considering how many people struggle with chronic insomnia and sleep deprivation, this is critical to overall health. When you consider your mindset when you are feeling grateful, compared to when you are feeling anxious or stressed, it’s easy to see how it might help.
The link between gratitude and stress is a key component of its medical benefits. Research continues to indicate that the damaging effects of stress can contribute to poor heart health, obesity, digestive issues, and depression.
Gratitude is related to a 23 percent drop in cortisol, the primary stress hormone. And practicing gratitude can lead to a drop in the biomarkers that indicate inflammation, another sign of stress. Grateful people also have lower blood pressure and better cholesterol.
In addition to the stress-related physical benefits, gratitude has significant benefits to mental health. Multiple studies have shown that people who regularly practice gratitude experience lower rates of depression, anxiety, and other negative mental health conditions.
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