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The science of gratitude

What does it mean to be grateful?

At its root, it’s a dual action, a combination of appreciating the good things in life and recognizing that someone else is responsible for them.

Last year has provided no shortage of things to decry. There’s no need to list them here, but for evidence of the year’s negative impacts on the American psyche, see the spiking anxiety depression rates around the country. Suicide, too, has become an even greater concern — the pandemic and its economic fallout in particular have pushed many to the brink and beyond.

But getting back to gratitude, researchers are uncovering links between feeling grateful and expressing gratitude and other positive emotions, including joy and optimism. This can also correlate with greater sense of purpose in life, higher quality, mutually supportive relationships, and lower levels of negative emotions including shame and depression.

One study even reports that grateful people tend to sleep better at night.

This might sound like a magic bullet. Giving thanks and showing appreciation for others requires little effort after all. Who wouldn’t want to sleep better and increase their happiness?

But this is where research suggests a sharp divide between an overall lifestyle that includes experiencing and expressing gratitude and a deliberate effort to simply act grateful.

Studies have shown that performing gratitude exercises suggests that they actually have little effect on well-being overall.

Suddenly altering one’s lifestyle to include verbal affirmation for others will not cure anxiety or depression or miraculously alter one’s mindset.

Rather, making a concerted effort to show gratitude for others in one’s life can help them feel supported. It creates a sort of network of goodwill.

Those relationships, multiplied, become our social fabric, badly frayed of late by politics and toxic media and the erosion of community and fraternal organizations.

A simple “thank you” to health care workers or anyone in your life who has done you a kindness may not help you start sleeping better. But it may make them feel seen, heard and appreciated. Supporting others by affirmation encourages them to support others in a similar manner. Furthermore, a deliberate effort to remember the good things in life on a regular basis, whether the roof overhead or the kindness of strangers, can and does have significant health outcomes in the long run.

Above all, remembering that this time is temporary and shall pass should encourage us to look ahead with optimism. As we approach the end of the year, difficult though it has been, there is always something to be grateful for.

* Guest editorial from The Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio

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