Since the late 90’s, Dr. Robert A Emmons, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, has been one of the world’s leading experts on the study of gratitude and its effects on the human experience. In his many studies, he found that gratitude not only impacted the mind, but also the wellbeing of the BODY!
In his studies, he and his colleagues often had subjects keep “gratitude journals.” In the journal, they would write down things that they were grateful for throughout the day. Entries would have included things such as, “A neighbor waved hello to me as I arrived home,” or “I saved $15 on my grocery bill today.” Even witnessing acts of gratitude such as, “I saw a disabled woman give a big warm hug to the gentleman who picked up the umbrella that she dropped,” made appearances. After three weeks of journaling, regardless of the age of the test subject, everybody exhibited incredible effects from practicing conscious gratitude every day.
Dr. Emmons found that people who practiced daily gratitude improved mentally. They exuded more joy, optimism, and pleasure. They even reported feeling more awake, alert, and alive. People who practiced daily gratitude also reported having better physical health. They possessed stronger immune systems, they experienced fewer aches and pains, and they reported lower blood pressure. They also had better sleep, woke up feeling more refreshed, and even felt driven to exercise and take better care of their health. Their overall outlook on life both mentally AND physically improved immensely. This then led to them experiencing better engagement in their daily lives. They intentionally connected with people, exhibited decreased loneliness and isolation, and possessed an improved ability to be generous, compassionate, and forgiving.
The reason these studies are so fascinating is because it is rooted in our human connection and affirmation of each other. Every time we receive a gift, we have the opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude. In these moments, we recognize that the good came from outside of ourselves. This realization reduces isolation and the risk of selfish tendencies. Then, receiving the gift of others often causes us to desire to pass that goodness on to other people around us. Receiving is a joy that fills our hearts and then overflows; it cannot possibly be kept to ourselves any longer.
In my own darkest moments in the depths of severe clinical depression, gratitude was one of the single most important virtues that kept me afloat. Had I written these moments in a journal, it might have read something like, “I experienced the generosity of people’s time as they spent the afternoon with me.” Or, “I appreciated the sun’s sparkle on the water of the lake.” And even “I noticed how nice the cool temperature of the water felt on my face as I washed this morning when I was feeling crummy with depression.” It was all in the little things and the briefest of moments that I could make note of these gifts and experience gratitude. And every time, it began with my bodily experience of time and space. The body is quite literally the gateway to experiencing gratitude!
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how instrumental gratitude had been in resuscitating my soul from a crushing darkness. It caused me to look beyond myself and notice the gifts of God’s creation all around me. As Dr. Emmons found repeatedly in his own studies, gratitude had a way of blocking out negative, toxic emotions. Gratitude made everyday stress more manageable, and it increased my self-worth by making me more aware of the gift of the present rather than worrying about the past or the future. My own experience rhymed with thousands of other people who practiced daily gratitude. Simply put, gratitude cultivates generosity and ultimately the gift of self!
Gratitude has a unique way of letting your mind AND body know in the gentlest of ways: “It’s okay. Right now, where you stand in this present moment, right here – you are alive. You can think. You can feel. You can receive. You can give. You are a gift to others, and they are all a gift to you. The world is full of joy and goodness. It is there to be discovered if you will but take a moment to look for it.” Find that goodness. These gifts are free for the taking. After all, our Heavenly Father has given us these countless gifts freely. If we allow God into our hearts through the gifts that we receive daily, we allow Him to ever so gently heal and transform our hearts. It is then that we can be a gift to the rest of the world – the gift that we were always meant to be.