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December 17, 2021

Gratitude provides a pathway to better health and well-being

Finding something positive in every day is not always easy, but it can prompt a litany of benefits

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Grandfather Grandson Gratitude Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Being grateful for the good things in your life is a pathway to ensuring your health and happiness.

Diet and exercise dominate the discourse on healthy behavior. So, whenever I find a practice that steps outside these boundaries, I immediately want to bring it to your attention.

To me, the thought of doing something healthy that doesn't require you to work up a sweat or count calories is compelling. If this same strategy is free, the proposition becomes that much more attractive. And, if the actions have an emotional element that can enhance your relationships, and further strengthen your well-being, then, I'm all in.

Such is the case with gratitude. As a habit, the science suggests that being grateful for the good things in your life is a pathway to ensuring your health and happiness. The evidence of this mind-body connection is profound.

Across the board, experts agree that gratitude benefits your physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic says practicing gratitude on a daily basis can improve sleep, boost immunity and decrease the risk of disease.

The University of Virginia describes a litany of improvements that can be spurred by expressing gratitude. Individuals who express gratitude have fewer headaches, respiratory infections and gastrointestinal problems, according to research cited by the University.

And, the University of Southern California says that the regular practice of gratitude can promote more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation and lower blood pressure.

If this isn't enough, the National Institutes of Health links gratitude with improvements to your emotional well-being and ability to cope with stress. It also increased positive emotions.

An attitude of gratitude

The GraceMed Health Clinic says that as we age, gratitude becomes more than just words of thanks to others or internal thoughts of appreciation. The clinic uses the phrase "attitude of gratitude" to characterize a personality trait oriented to the positive in the world. This outlook leads to peace of mind, happiness and deeper, more satisfying relationships.

And Harvard Medical School explains that besides acknowledging the goodness in their lives, people who are grateful often see that their sources of goodness can lie outside themselves – whether to other people, nature or a higher power.

Practicing gratitude

Taking a moment each day to be thankful for what you have in your life is at the core of practicing gratitude. It's a positive acknowledgement that, no matter what you are encountering, no matter how bad things may seem, you have the ability to find a reason to be grateful. That something can be big or small. Finding a great parking space, having a good day at work, or appreciating your spouse and children. The gratitude can be based on past memories, contemporary enjoyment, or the anticipation of future events. It can be an internal thought, a verbal expression to someone, a hand-written note or even a post on social media. It's all in the eye of the beholder. If the thought or action is an expression of appreciation, it works.

Johns Hopkins University is among the institutions that believe that people derive physical and mental benefits through the practice of being grateful. The university recommends keeping a gratitude journal and writing thank you notes to those who have done something for you. I especially like their recommendation to engage in mental subtraction; imagining what your life would be like if certain events did not happen or your life took a different direction.

At the University of North Carolina, researchers suggest that practicing gratitude can be hard when we can't seem to find the good things in our lives. To overcome these hurdles, they offer a four-part approach – notice, think, feel and do. Notice what you have in life no matter how small. Think about those who may have made your gifts in life possible. Feel the positive emotions – the kindness, generosity or love shown you. And do something to show your appreciation.

They acknowledge that taking these actions may require more intention when you find yourself in difficult situations, but the experts say that enacting these steps by journaling, writing letters or simply talking with friends can yield benefits. It seems gratitude follows most things in life. You get out what you put in.

My gratitude platform

My experience is that gratitude can serve as a great resource for a healthy lifestyle. I apply gratitude in a number of ways and through many of the tactics recommended by the experts. The key, I find, is to tailor the practices to your individual circumstances.

For example, I'm very appreciative of the little things that I experience on a daily basis, what I refer to as micro motivators. This includes my pre-workout coffee and newspapers in the stillness of the early morning, and my time at the gym where I can clear my head and contemplate the day ahead.

Then there are my emotional relationships for which I am extremely grateful – my wife, sons and, of course, grandson. They ground me in reality, inspire and bring a wealth of pride, fulfillment and love. Devoting time to maximizing these relationships deepens all of these feelings and, of course, heightens the gratitude I have for them.

Yet another dimension is leveraging past and future events, whether personal or professional. I find that looking back and anticipating upcoming events with friends and family is a big gratitude generator, as are professional opportunities. Both bring me a sense of well-being and accomplishment for which I am thankful to enjoy.

Within this framework I chronicle my memories, not necessarily with a journal, but with mementoes – pictures, ticket stubs, news clips and other souvenirs that document the memories. That's what works for me.

As for thank you notes, for me its more likely to be a text. I find that the spontaneity seems to resonate with most people, particularly my kids, and captures the moment in a unique way. Again, that's just my style.

As for the degree of difficulty in finding something positive every day, yes, it's not always easy. I find that past memories and my micro motivators come in very handy when the day is particularly stressful. They serve as my gratitude bank.

Remember, there are no gratitude police. If you miss a day, its OK. The key is to practice gratitude more than not. It's a long-term play, one that can make a big difference. Being able to contribute to your health without breaking a sweat is a great strategy. Something for which you can be most grateful.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.  

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