Big ROI in living a grateful life

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Did the Thanksgiving holiday help you to physically feel better? If not, you may have been doing it wrong.

Researchers have found that people who practice gratitude or thankfulness report a variety of very tangible benefits, including:

• Stronger immune systems.
• Lower blood pressure.
• Fewer aches and pains.
• Better sleep.
• Increased interest in exercise and healthy eating.
• Acting with more generosity and compassion.
• Greater resiliency, including recovery from traumatic events.
• Feeling less lonely and isolated.
• Greater economic stability.
• Reduced anxiety and depression.
• More joy, optimism and happiness.

These findings are courtesy of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which partnered with the University of California, Davis to launch a $5.6 million, three-year study project: Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude.

There is, of course, a catch.

Grateful Life - Afghan children play on a swing at an old part of Kabul in 2014.
Afghan children play on a swing at an old part of Kabul in 2014. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

In order for individuals to reap the lovely benefits, they must commit — one day of family, friends and turkeys isn’t enough.

But, according to author Robert Emmons, a scientific expert in this field, a few minutes each day can make a big difference. He suggests keeping a “gratitude journal.”

Each day, observe the world around you from a perspective of thankfulness and jot down a few things you appreciate.

If done consistently, the once-per-day exercise will alter your emotional hard-wiring for the better.

And the really good news is that the actual content isn’t as important as the thinking, the affirmation that good things exist and that we are benefactors of them. You can, for instance, just list three things, or you can write several paragraphs.

You don’t need to convince yourself that life is hassle-free, or that you have no complaints, but realize that gratitude lives alongside the frustrations we all encounter.

Living a grateful life requires us to be in the present, the now. And, it amplifies and lengthens positive emotions that often fade too quickly. After all, such emotions are often linked to novelty — a new friend, job or possession. But when we concentrate beyond what’s fresh and new, get to the real value of these things, we can intensify our feelings of satisfaction or gratitude about them.

Finally, putting ourselves into that type of space — where we are making a point of noticing of all the goodness around us — we naturally block the more toxic emotions of envy, resentment and regret before they can claim a foothold. After all, you cannot be simultaneously envious and grateful; it’s difficult to resent others while you are counting your own blessings.

Changing long developed mindsets isn’t easy, it takes patience and persistence. Those unaccustomed to seeing themselves as fortunate, or convinced they alone can “make it happen,” will need to work harder.

It’s great that most of us are able to take one day each year to pause in thanksgiving. But a better life requires a larger investment.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on November 28, 2015. Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters