It is the holiday season among us, and it is a special time of the year where streets are beginning to glisten, life beings to be filled with extra bustle in preparation for the holidays, and with it comes a certain radiance. It is a time we remember from childhood to be our favorite because it takes into a different world, a world filled with ‘feel good’ movies, joy, celebrations, family gatherings and presents. Starting with Thanksgiving holiday, it is a period of time we find to be defined by one word: gratitude.
Everything around us this time of year points to gratitude, starting from the Thanksgiving meal, to an inbox full of messages of thanks from retailers offering discounts, to sentiments shared online between friends, coworkers and within our community. We all know that we feel good when we express gratitude and when someone expresses gratitude towards us, but what is gratitude? Is there any scientific benefit to practicing gratitude?
These are precisely the questions that scientists have been asking themselves, as there have been numerous studies on gratitude. One of such studies looked at how gratitude works on the level of the brain and found that gratitude is not a basic emotion of just getting a reward, rather the brain activity in that area indicates that gratitude is a complex emotion, built around social interactions, interpersonal bonding, moral judgement, and empathy. This shows that our brain does not experience the expression of gratitude as just a trivial ‘thank you!’, rather it seems an important part of human interactions which allows us to forge connections. Perhaps this comes from the fact that gratitude is itself an experience that forces us to go outside of ourselves, when we express gratitude we usually are thanking someone or something outside of ourselves for a positive outcomes. In the same way when someone shows gratitude towards us, we also experience a positive emotion as a result, at least in part, of the other’s party positive emotion. Thus, the expressions of gratitude allow us to forge connects with that which is outside ourselves, such as people, ideas, communities or the divine. Gratitude, then, is inherent to our human experience and should be a daily practice.
To further understand how gratitude affects on a daily basis, another study found that writing gratitude letters for three weeks straight improved the mental health of those struggling with issues around anxiety and depression. A study examined 300 participants who had just began their counseling course, which was split into three groups: 1) that wrote gratitude letters 2) that examined negative emotions as a result of the experience 3) that did not do anything. They found that the group that the group that wrote the letters, reported a better mental health a month and three months after. Upon close examination of the letters, they found that what really made a difference in mental health improvement was not the abundance of positive words, but rather a lack of negative ones! Thus, indicating, that gratitude shifts our frame of mind to the positive and allows us to have better psychological experience despite what we may be going through.
Thus, this holiday season, practice gratitude with abundance and make it habit in 2020 for a better and more fulfilling life!