by Anna Marie Trotman, Director of Integrative Services at The Birth Center

Recently I had a hypnosis session with one of the Integrative Practitioners at The Birth Center. The session was amazingly relaxing, but one of the biggest surprises, was the incredible feeling of gratitude that came over me. I tend to recognize the things I am grateful for but the session went way beyond thought and into a full body experience.

I got to thinking about this encounter and wanted to know more about the psychological and physiological effects of gratitude on the body, mind and spirit.

Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier

November kicks off the holiday season with high expectations for a cozy and festive time of year. However, some of us may experience sadness, anxiety, or depression. And then there are those who just feel lost or overwhelmed at this time of year. In order to overcome some of these feelings, we’re going to look at how gratitude can actually lift our spirits.

The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. What we’ve come to know, is that gratitude is a deep appreciation for the goodness in our lives, whether tangible or intangible. In the process, we recognize that the source of our goodness lies partially outside ourselves. As a result, gratitude also helps us connect to something bigger, whether it’s other people, nature, or a higher power.

Effects of Gratitude

Expressing gratitude changes the molecular structure of our brains and keeps the gray matter functioning. Gratitude also makes us healthier and happier. When we feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected and we are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant.

  • Gratitude releases us from toxic emotions.
  • Gratitude helps even if we don’t share it.
  • Gratitude’s benefits take time and practice.
  • Gratitude has lasting effects on our hearts and brains.

Research on Gratitude

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on the events being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor.

Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.

A Few Simple Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Gratitude helps us to refocus on what we have instead of what we lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice. It’s like building a muscle. Here are a few ways to cultivate gratitude.

Write a thank-you note.  Nurture your relationships by writing a thank-you note expressing your appreciation of another person’s impact on your life. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude note a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself. Stay away from email or text for this one, the physical act of writing a note is very powerful.

Thank someone mentally:  It helps just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the person.

Keep a gratitude journal: Make it a habit to write down some of your thoughts about the gifts you receive each day.

Pray: Those who are spiritual can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.

Meditate:  Meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Focus on what you’re grateful for. You can look up meditation practices if you need support.

Open Your Heart: I invite you to take 5 minutes and open your heart to this incredibly beautiful video called  “A Good Day” With Brother David Steindl-Rast