Does “thanks giving” represent a regular practice in your life or a once-a-year holiday (“Thanksgiving”) for you?
“Giving thanks”, also known as “gratitude”, is a powerful tool for bolstering our mental and physical well-being.
Feeling grateful isn’t just reserved for those who seemingly “have it all” and/or for those who appear happy and well-adjusted.
Gratitude can also improve the well-being of those who struggle with anxiety and depression.
In a study of the effect of gratitude on mental health, participants consisted of 293 adults seeking university-based counseling services who were then divided into three groups and conditions:
1) One group received psychotherapy only.
2) One group received psychotherapy + wrote about their thoughts and feelings about their stressful experiences.
3) One group received psychotherapy + wrote letters expressing their gratitude toward others. *In this group, only 23% of participants actually sent their gratitude letters.
Compared to those who wrote about their stressful experiences or who only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health 4 weeks—and even 12 weeks—after the writing exercise had ended (1). Two-thirds (67%) of participants in the gratitude letter writing group did not send their letters, which suggests that the simple act of putting pen to paper and expressing gratitude can help improve mental health.
What does it mean to be “grateful”?
Being grateful does not mean that you are a Pollyanna who views the world through rose-colored glasses. You are not denying reality or pretending that everything is perfect.
Practicing gratitude means that you choose to focus your attention and energy on what you appreciate—even under the most challenging of circumstances. Energetically, expressing gratitude is most powerful when comes from a place of sincerity, authenticity and integrity.
Why is gratitude so powerful?
- It helps us focus on the positive aspects of our life.
- It instills a sense of hope, optimism, appreciation and faith.
- It can help build, maintain, or grow relationships, personal and professional.
- It can reinforce proactive behaviors, where we make positive choices around our health, family, friendships, work and/or money.
- It energetically aligns us with—and reinforces—our core values.
- It helps ground us in the “NOW” (vs. the past or future).
The benefits of practicing gratitude on a regular basis are cumulative.
Being in a state of gratitude positively affects the brain. Over time, the benefits of gratitude have a domino effect. Gratitude is associated with:
- Less depression
- Less anxiety
- Less symptoms / less intensity of physical pain
- Greater self-esteem (2)
- Increased life satisfaction (3)
- Better physical health (4)
- Less stress (5)
- Better sleep quality (6)
- Enhanced compliance (e.g., diet, exercise, stress reduction) and recovery (physically and mentally) from acute coronary syndrome (e.g., heart attacks, unstable angina) when approaching recovery with gratitude and optimism (7).
Gratitude Invites Abundance
Practicing gratitude can also change our relationship with abundance.
In Western culture, “abundance” is perceived as acquisitive, whether in the number of possessions you own or status-driven. For example, whether you own a home (or several); where you live; how many—and the type of—car(s) you drive; where your children go to school; how much money you make; where you vacation; owning the latest tech gadgets; even how many “followers” or “likes” you have on social media. Focusing on external markers of abundance can keep you in a perpetual “lack” or “scarcity” state of mind.
For me, personally, the concept of “abundance” has shifted radically, especially over the last three years. I equate abundance with having and maintaining optimal health and vitality. Having knowledge and skills that translate into self-sufficiency is another form of abundance times 10! For example… knowing how to grow, preserve and cook your own food, raising livestock; having technical or mechanical skills; or knowing how to build things. Your unique gift, whether as an educator, health practitioner, speaker, writer, organizer or other natural talent, is yet another form of abundance.
As a functional health coach and behavioral coach, I consider it a privilege that clients have openly shared their struggles—whether physical, mental or emotional—with me over the years. They learn from me; I also learn from them. Their stories have instilled within me a deeper sense of gratitude for what we can appreciate—beyond material possessions. In a world where external events clamor for our attention, we can take so many of our daily gifts for granted.
These are some of the stories that have moved me. All names and any potentially identifying details have been changed.
Being able to breathe.
Count yourself lucky if you can breathe freely. Our breath literally gives us life. The human body can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air. Breathing is an automatic function. We take breathing for granted…until we can’t.
*Dorothy (not her real name) was an 85-year-old client whose respiratory trauma (collapsed lungs) required that she stay hooked up to an oxygen tank 24/7. She had started smoking at age 12; by age 16, Dorothy was smoking a carton of cigarettes a week. She smoked through all 5 of her pregnancies. After a hysterectomy in her mid-50s, Dorothy had two severe bouts of pneumonia and was told that she only had a few years to live if continued smoking. Dorothy quit smoking cold turkey.
Over time, however, Dorothy developed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) and was susceptible to semi-regular bouts of pneumonia. Dorothy had worked until age 76, retiring only because her COPD had become severe. At 80, Dorothy fell and broke her pelvis. Once a go-getter, Dorothy’s life was now limited to her bedroom, living room and bathroom at her daughter’s home. Smoking had been Dorothy’s coping mechanism for surviving two long-term abusive marriages to alcoholic husbands.
As the main breadwinner and mother to five children—Dorothy was in survival mode most of her life and was never able to “breathe easy”. Her story always reminds me that breath = life. And how important it is to pause and breathe when feeling anxious or stressed.
Having an intact sense of smell and taste.
We often take for granted our ability to enjoy the aromas and flavors of our Thanksgiving meal—or any meal for that matter. But I no longer do. Certainly, not after I worked with Eileen, a 50-something stay-at-home mom.
Two years ago, after being C*V*D vaccine-injured (three inoculations total), *Eileen (not her real name) experienced parosmia, a distorted sense of smell and taste, that continues to persist. She shared that, initially, “everything smelled like rotting roadkill—all the time”. Although this lessened somewhat over time, “water still smells like diesel fuel” and “soda smells like cleaning fluid”. Eileen also continues to experience “phantom smells”; for example, smelling cigarette smoke in spaces where smoking is prohibited. As a diabetic, Eileen finds it challenging to make healthier food choices (e.g., vegetables, fruits) because eating healthy foods “smells and tastes like eating garbage”, thanks to her parosmia.
I consider food to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Personally, as a foodie who enjoys the sensual aspects of eating local and seasonal produce and meats, not being able to smell or taste nutrient-dense home-cooked meals would feel like an extreme form of punishment! As the holiday season begins, I am very grateful to have my sense of smell and taste intact.
Being physically mobile.
Through my work as a functional health coach and behavioral coach, I have become aware that a stunning number of people—whether young, in mid-life, or older—suffer from mobility issues. “Mobility” refers to the ability to move your body freely without restriction or pain. As of 2022, 18.5% of adults aged 18 and older have some degree of difficulty with walking or climbing steps (8).
*Aleesha (not her real name), an obese woman in her mid-30s, has been on dialysis for over a decade after being diagnosed with acute kidney failure in her early 20s. To qualify for a kidney transplant, Aleesha must lose over 200 pounds. For Aleesha, even simple movements, like walking from one room to another in her home, triggers “bone-on-bone” knee pain and crushing fatigue.
The thought of walking any distance also evokes anxiety in *Liz (not her real name), age 69, who experiences chronic pain because of her rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis. Liz also has tinnitus and vertigo that strikes randomly and can throw her off balance. Several years ago, Liz was crossing a busy street when her legs suddenly gave out, and she fell. No one came to her assistance. Liz ended up crawling her way off the road. Since that incident, Liz ’s anxiety about falling prevents her from engaging in regular physical activity of any kind.
These are just two of the many stories I have heard from clients who struggle with restricted mobility because of acquired disabilities, medical conditions, botched surgeries, or pharmaceutical interventions gone awry. I now have a deeper appreciation and gratitude for experiencing pain-free, unrestricted mobility. I am inspired to move my body every day, all the while mindful that freedom of movement is a gift.
Being open to new ways of thinking or doing.
*Tyler (not his real name), age 22, had graduated college one year early. He was tech-savvy and worked remotely (from home) as a software developer. Since childhood, Tyler had suffered from social anxiety. Over the past year, however, his anxiety had become acute, intensifying to the point where he did not want to leave the house. He found interacting with people “draining” and was only able to tolerate the human presence of immediate family members—his parents and two siblings. Walking down the street—or anywhere for that matter—and having to pass strangers triggered a pounding heart and near panic attacks.
Tyler often engaged in self-criticism and negative self-talk because he felt like he “should be” more outgoing and at ease with other people but he was not. Tyler took two anti-depressants to help with his anxiety and insomnia. While they had initially helped in the beginning, Tyler found that both medications had “tapered off in usefulness”. He shared that he longed to be able to reduce his social anxiety to the point where he could go the grocery store or take a walk outside and not feel panicked.
When I began working with Tyler, I discovered that Tyler had little structure around his food choices and lifestyle habits. “Meals” were snacks and eaten “whenever”. His food choices consisted of mostly processed snack foods, takeout, refined carbohydrates and no vegetables. He drank a fair amount of alcohol, roughly 24-36 ounces via cocktails, every night before bed. In addition to working remotely on his computer, Tyler also participated in video game tournaments in the evenings, sometimes, playing until 3AM. For Tyler, physical movement was largely relegated to the house as the thought of going to a gym triggered overwhelming anxiety.
Once Tyler and I began a step-by-step approach to bringing structure into his daily food choices and routine, including reducing his amount of screen time, the intensity of his anxiety began to diminish. We also worked on identifying self-defeating thought patterns and cultivated coping strategies for his social anxiety. Tyler showed up at every session, having followed through with the goals we had set previously. In less than two months, he had shifted to eating more whole foods-based meals; significantly reduced his alcohol intake; reduced his screen time; consistently adhered to a pre-bedtime routine that included non-electronic relaxation strategies. As a result, he experienced improved sleep, which helped reduce his anxiety. He had worked his way up to taking short walks on a near-daily basis, where he was able to pass strangers with minimal anxiety. In a triumphant moment, Tyler was even able to venture into a public space, using the thinking strategies we had discussed to counter his anxiety.
My experience in working with Tyler has made me grateful and appreciative of how keeping an open mind can be key to the transformation we seek. Especially when we do our part and show up for ourselves.
Resilience of the human spirit.
*Phillip (not his real name) was an 84-year-old artist who suffered from anxiety and depression and was prone to panic attacks. Phillip had a history of severe trauma. He had been married twice; both marriages ended in divorce. His first wife had been a manic-depressive who had physically abused their children, especially their two sons. After their divorce, Phillip remained single for over a decade and raised their children. His second wife left their marriage after Phillip lost his life savings to a friend in an investment fraud scam. While trying to recover his money, Phillip learned that his friend, whom he had known since college, was a drug trafficker. Not long after this, Phillip’s oldest son committed suicide; one year later, his younger son also committed suicide, causing Phillip to have a nervous breakdown. More recently, Phillip had stomach cancer, from which he was weaning off post-treatment medications.
When Phillip and I worked together, we focused on boundary-setting practices and self-care. Phillip was an empathetic, kind and giving person, but he often gave to others at the expense of his own health and wealth-being. At the end of our time together, he came to understand that his desire to help others and inability to say “no” was part of a long-standing people-pleasing pattern that was detrimental to his mental and physical well-being.
Despite having experienced death, betrayals of the worst kind, financial loss, and ill health, Phillip retained a deep desire to help those less fortunate than himself. At our last session, Phillip expressed his gratitude for the time we spent together, and he wrote me a letter of gratitude. I was deeply touched by his kindness, which only reinforced my gratitude and appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit—despite all odds.
How to Practice Gratitude
According to gratitude expert, Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the two key components of practicing gratitude are (9):
- We affirm the good things that we have received.
- We acknowledge the role that other people play in helping us achieve goodness in our lives.
Here 6 ways that we can practice gratitude …
1. Keep a gratitude journal. This doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. Start by writing down 3 to 5 things for which you are grateful every day. You can be grateful for anything and everything…your morning cup of coffee, a beautiful sunny day, or the love and support of your partner. The focus of this practice is to train your mind to see the positives in your life.
2. Write a gratitude letter. Think of someone who did something for you for which you are very grateful, but to whom you never expressed your gratitude. It could be a teacher, mentor, colleague, friend or relative. Address this person directly, and describe what this person did for you, why you are grateful, and how this person’s actions positively affected your life. Be as specific as you can. Share where you are in your life now and how you remember their efforts to help you (10).
3. Verbalize your gratitude. Everyone loves to be appreciated. And research has found that expressing your gratitude can strengthen relationships.
Nothing kills romance faster than feeling unappreciated. Studies have found that expressing gratitude to a spouse or partner for doing his or her household “job” (e.g., taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, cooking meals, picking up the kids) can increase overall satisfaction in relationships. People who felt appreciated for doing their share of household chores reported wanting to do them—and even liked doing them (11, 12).
Thanking your partner for doing the dishes on a night you feel exhausted or for shoveling the snow on a freezing cold day shows that you are present in the relationship because you notice who your partner is (e.g., thoughtful, organized, etc.) and what they are doing for you and/or your family (e.g., concerned about your safety or well-being).
In a study of 120 newlywed couples, researchers found that high gratitude expression byboth partners over the course of three years was associated with stable marital satisfaction (13).
In other words, gratitude benefits close relationships when it is a two-way street and both partners consistently express appreciation and gratitude to the other.
Low gratitude in one partner (e.g., seldom or never expresses gratitude) can leave both partners feeling dissatisfied with their relationship (14).
4. Tune in to your senses. We often fail to appreciate the physical body in which we live. Your body is a gift: pay attention to what gives you sensual pleasure. On a cellular level, the body will respond positively to gratitude. Simple appreciation goes a long way. I am always grateful for being able to see the spectacular red-and-gold landscape of upstate New York in late fall; to hear an owl hooting on my evening walks; to smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh-brewed espresso on chilly mornings; to taste the umami of seared duck breast (my favorite!); or to feel the hug of a close friend.
5. That was then. This is NOW. Sometimes, we can get caught up in wanting, wanting, wanting. Never feeling satisfied or content with your “now”. To feel gratitude, it can be helpful to remember hard times and how far you have come. For example, maybe you feel frustrated with running your online business. It can be helpful to remember what your life was like before you started your own business: maybe…working two jobs, long hours, difficult bosses and no time for a personal life. Now, despite the challenging ups and downs of having your own business, you are doing what you truly love.
6, Make lemonade out of lemons. To feel gratitude, we can always look for the proverbial “silver lining” in any situation or where your “glass is half full vs. half empty.” Maybe we feel overwhelmed by loss…of physical health, material possessions, finances or people who were important to us. What can we learn from a bad experience(s), unfortunate as it might be?
For example, I recently worked with *Jean (not her real name), a client in her early 70s, who went to the ER for what she thought was an episode of severe heartburn / acid reflux. While there, Jean was shocked to discover that not only did she have an ulcer, she had had a silent heart attack earlier in the year. It was a wake-up call for Jean who had been neglecting her own self-care in her role as her narcissistic sister’s caretaker. Because of her health challenges, Jean got very clear about her life priorities. She began making different food choices, releasing a perfectionist mindset, and setting boundaries around over-giving to her demanding and unappreciative sister.
I am a firm believer that health is a true form of wealth.
My own health has not been perfect. Yet, I am deeply grateful for the opportunities, knowledge and skills that I have acquired in pursuing natural health and wellness approaches to my own health challenges, including low thyroid, low immunity, food sensitivities and mood imbalances (anxiety and depression). It has made me passionate about empowering others to be proactive about their health.
If you seek support and guidance on your health journey, consider scheduling a free 15-minute Discovery phone consultation to see if working with a functional health coach is right for you. Click HERE to book a day / time that works for you.
1 Y. Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, Sydney McInnis, Paul Toth & Lynn Gilman (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202.
2, 3 Joshua A. Rash, M. Kyle Matsuba, Kenneth M. Prkachin (2011). Gratitude and Well-Being: Who benefits most from a gratitude intervention? International Association of Applied Psychology. Vol. 3. Issue 3. pp. 350-369. Oct. 27, 2011.
4 Hill PL, Allemand M, Roberts BW. Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood. Pers Individ Dif. 2013 Jan;54(1):92-96.
5 Krause, N. (2006). Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life. Research on Aging, 28(2), 163-183.
6 Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J, Atkins S. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res. 2009 Jan;66(1):43-8.
7 Millstein RA, Celano CM, Beale EE, Beach SR, Suarez L, Belcher AM, Januzzi JL, Huffman JC. The effects of optimism and gratitude on adherence, functioning and mental health following an acute coronary syndrome. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2016 Nov-Dec;43: 17-22
8 Center for Disease Control (CDC). Disability and Functioning. June 30, 2023.
9 Greater Good Magazine. What is Gratitude? The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 2023.
10 Greater Good in Action. Gratitude Letter. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
11 Amie M. Gordon. It’s Time to Thank Your Partner for Doing Their “Job”. Psychology Today. March 6, 2017.
12 Park, Y., Visserman, M. L., Sisson, N. M., Le, B. M., Stellar, J. E., & Impett, E. A. (2021). How can I thank you? Highlighting the benefactor’s responsiveness or costs when expressing gratitude. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(2), 504-523.
13, 14 McNulty, J. K., & Dugas, A. (2019). A dyadic perspective on gratitude sheds light on both its benefits and its costs: Evidence that low gratitude acts as a “weak link”. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(7), 876–88.