How Gratitude Makes You Happier

Woman writing in her journal on the couch.

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Choosing to be thankful may well be an easy and accessible way to boost your happiness. There is a definite link between gratitude and happiness. First, what is happiness? When we think of happiness, we usually think of it as a subjective sense of well-being, a feeling of joy and satisfaction. What many people may not realize is that happiness isn’t just an emotion or fleeting feeling. It’s about how good you feel and also how satisfied you are with your life.

Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has won grants for her research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness, considered those feel-good emotions like joy and a sense of positive well-being in measuring happiness. Yet, she also found happiness to include a deep sense of meaning, worth and purpose in life.

Dr. Amy E. Keller, PsyD, a marriage and family therapist doesn’t leave out the purposeful aspect in building happiness. When you feel joyful, but also feel your life has meaning, you’re more appreciative of what you have.

She 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.”

Let's take a look at the positive benefits of gratitude and how you can learn to cultivate gratitude in your daily life.

What Happens to Our Bodies When We're Grateful?

Much scientific evidence has shown that gratitude has far-reaching effects on our health. 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.

Researchers over the years point to lower stress, reduced pain and improved immune systems as a result of being thankful. Even better blood pressure and positive effects on the heart have been linked to gratitude.

Gratitude has a strong positive impact on psychological well-being as well. It increases self-esteem, enhances positive emotions and makes us more optimistic. 

When we feel deep happiness, our bodies are producing all sorts of wonderful chemicals. Keller explains more specifically how rewarding it is for our body.

Amy E. Keller, PsyD

Experiencing gratitude activates neurotransmitters like dopamine, which we associate with pleasure, and serotonin, which regulates our mood. It also causes the brain to release oxytocin, a hormone which induces feelings like trust and generosity which promotes social bonding, and feeling connected.

— Amy E. Keller, PsyD

How to Practice Gratitude

Just like a muscle, when you exercise your thankfulness more often, you’re more likely to see beneficial effects.

Learn From the Scandinavians

In 2018 and 2019, Finland ranked No. 1 in The United Nation’s (UN) World Happiness Report. It’s worth pausing to think about why Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland often rank at the top for the happiest people in the world. The UN report is a survey of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by respondent ratings of their own lives.

Therefore, Scandinavians themselves are determining their levels of happiness. It’s obviously pretty high. They are appreciative of a functioning society in which they have economic security and in which social institutions support everyone, not just a few. Yet, there is something else. The Swedes use the word “lagom,” to describe a kind of moderation, a just enough-ness they value.

They don’t chase happiness or work overtime for months at a time. By and large, they are accepting and content. They remain grateful for a healthy work-life balance, take breaks during the work day, and have a high standard of living. They also have low corruption and a high level of social trust.

As a result of this satisfaction and contentment, they feel their lives have value. They have less pressure, less stress, and more time for what they enjoy.

Activate Gratitude Regularly

The best way to make gratitude a habit is not to wait for special moments. Some people have been told by their therapists they can keep stress and anxiety at bay by keeping a gratitude journal. Journaling every day is also correlated with an increase in happiness.

But if you’re not ready for that kind of commitment, there’s an easy way to begin on your road to being grateful. Just pay attention. Start identifying things you might take for granted. Then, take a moment to be thankful for them.

Be sure to consider positive actions and events that might seem small, common-place or inconsequential. Here are some examples:

  • Be thankful for the warm cup of tea you are enjoying.
  • Look up and appreciate the roof over your head.
  • Notice the small acts of kindness that you forgot to pay attention to.
  • Be thankful someone waved your car through in the parking lot.
  • Be appreciative of the friendly customer in line at Starbucks who allowed you to go ahead of them.
  • Take a moment to be grateful that your best friend texted you to see how your headache was.
  • Stop to be thankful that your hard-working mother texted you to have a nice night.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list as there are a variety of ways to cultivate gratitude. So, get creative and tailor them to your own life!

Do Gratitude Exercises

Your goal is to practice with intention and add this science-backed habit to increase your happiness. Do you feel that you’re too busy, especially with work? Keller encourages her clients to practice being thankful even at work.

She works with several “high-octane” business people and she encourages them to do gratitude exercises before big meetings. Keller says, “It not only reduces their anxiety, but it shifts their attitude toward one of cooperation (think of that oxytocin kicking in) resulting in more positive and productive interactions—which in turn gives them a sense of accomplishment (dopamine!) improving their overall feelings of satisfaction and self-worth.”

During busy work days and even on the weekends, when we are pressed for time, there are doable ways to fit gratitude into your schedule.

While journaling every day about what you’re grateful for has proven to be and remains extremely beneficial, here are other possible activities to help you stay on track:

  • Take a walk and be thankful for each item you see: trees, flowers, the sky, birds.
  • Get a magazine or old photos and make a collage of everything you’re grateful for.
  • Make a Gratitude Jar or Box. Using slips of paper, write three things you’re thankful for daily. Put in the jar or box and take out periodically to read.
  • Call someone who did something kind and express your appreciation.
  • Write a letter to someone to express how thankful you are for something that person did for you.
  • Schedule a visit and tell this person how much their favor or generous act really meant to you.

According to a recent issue of a newsletter published by Harvard Health, gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness based on positive psychology research. The newsletter suggests that gratitude helps people to “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

So, take some time to be thankful. It can impact your happiness and enhance many aspects of your life.

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