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With our busy lives in full swing, it can be challenging to slow down and take inventory of our well-being and the reasons we have to be thankful.

Fortunately, the act of practicing gratitude can actually improve your overall well-being. So, making time for this exercise is an easy way to prioritize your overall health. If you’re new to the idea of practicing gratitude (or need a refresher course), here’s everything you need to know.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons explains that there are two parts to gratitude, and both are equally important:

1.       Noticing and affirming the good things that happen.

2.       Recognizing other people’s roles in adding goodness to our lives.

When you’re grateful, you notice and experience pleasure more completely (because you’re present in the moment or reliving it later), and you enhance your relationships by acknowledging others’ roles.

Positive Well-Being: What is it?

When we talk about gratitude improving our “well-being,” what does that mean? Your overall well-being includes mental, emotional, and physical health, and gratitude may improve all three areas.

Mental

Researchers have shown that “a high level of gratitude has a strong positive impact on psychological well-being, self-esteem, and depression.” When your mental state is at its most vulnerable, one study has shown that “gratitude is a protective factor when it comes to suicidal ideation in stressed and depressed individuals.” Turning your attention to the positives in life can make it easier to persist through mental obstacles in the future.

Emotional

One of the easiest ways to talk about emotional well-being is in terms of “happiness”—but what does being happy look and feel like? Therapist Dr. Amy E Keller says, “‘When I talk about happiness with clients, I emphasize feeling purposeful and connected and cultivating satisfaction and self worth, as well as simply feeling pleasure—which of course is also a factor! Gratitude supports happiness in ways related to all of these.’”

Physical

The link between physical health and gratitude isn’t as clear, but many suggested links are worth considering. One of the most significant benefits seems to be improved sleep; studies have shown that people who have regular gratitude practices sleep better and longer. Many reports show that “when people are thankful and are good with things as they are, their physical health reflects that. They’re more likely to exercise, eat better, and take care of their health.”

Photo: Andriy Popov via 123RF

How to Practice Gratitude

If being grateful can improve all aspects of our health, then it’s essential to incorporate this practice into daily life as efficiently as possible. From small, daily affirmations to more extensive routines that focus on being grateful, there are many ways to increase your feelings of gratitude.

Journaling

Starting a gratitude journal is an excellent first step toward noticing the good things in your life. A regular journaling practice (1-3 times per week) should list things you’re grateful for and details about who else was involved in helping bring about this abundance of fortune. This is an activity where depth is more important than breadth, so don’t worry about remembering every good thing that happened to you this week. Instead, pick one or two actions or events, and describe as much as possible. If you’re stuck, try thinking about the opposite—what “negative” things did you avoid this week? Who helped you navigate around them? Noticing these successes will lead to gratitude. Pay particular attention to things that were surprising or unexpected!

Goal-Setting and Review

For longer-term development of gratitude, set life goals in various areas (health, career, family, etc.) and routinely assess your progress, noting which steps you’ve taken and who’s helped along the way. Intentionally be grateful for how far you’ve come rather than thinking about how much further you must go. Write notes to look back at upon completion of the goal and see just how much you have to be thankful for.

Explain the “Thanks”

Most of us say “thank you” many times a day. Often, it’s more of a reflex than a purposeful acknowledgment. To bring more gratitude to your life, pause and examine what’s behind the words before you say them. Try to explain, in concrete terms, why you’re thankful. Not only will you be more aware of the goodness that has entered your life, but the recipient of the thanks will feel bolstered, too. If you’re having trouble getting started, try filling out this formula: “Thank you for (action); that made me feel (emotion)” or “Thank you for (action); I recognize how much time/energy/resources/planning it took off my plate.”

Whether you’re new to practicing gratitude or are a seasoned pro, you’ll notice improvements to your well-being every time you devote attention to all that’s good in your life.