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Why Being Grateful Can Be Transformative

Far from being Woo-woo, gratitude is a powerful force that can improve every aspect of your life.

The pursuit of happiness is always a hot topic, and gratitude has become central to the conversation. Research worldwide supports its transformative power over our relationships, careers, physical health, emotional wellbeing and more besides – all resulting in a more successful and meaningful life.

Our human instinct is to survive, and that’s the brain’s first priority, setting us up to shield ourselves from the worst-case scenario. Every day, lots of good things happen to us and in the world, yet we’re not primed to recall these lighter events as easily as the darker ones. As psychologist and best-selling author Dr Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” That’s where gratitude comes in.

How gratitude works

By consciously practising gratitude every day, we can help the related neural pathways in our brains to strengthen, and ultimately become more positive people. “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” says Dr Hanson. ‘The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.”

Researcher, TED talker and bestselling author Brené Brown has discovered that it’s not being happy that makes someone grateful – it’s the opposite. “I always thought if you’re joyful, you should be grateful, but it wasn’t that way at all,” she says. “Instead, practising gratitude invites joy into our lives. A good life happens when you stop and are grateful for the ordinary moments that so many of us just steamroll over to try to find those extraordinary moments.”

How being grateful nourishes your body and mind

Studies show that those who practise gratitude have healthier lifestyles and in turn experience fewer health issues. Being grateful can not only support your immune system but also regulate and remedy aches, pains and sleep disorders. It regulates stress, too, with those who practise gratitude having lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that’s implicated in inflammation, weight gain, impaired learning and memory, and more.

Dr Hanson identifies gratitude as one of the key pillars of wellbeing. “It’s a psychologically skilful way to improve how you feel, get things done and treat others, and is among the top five personal growth methods I know. You’ll still see the tough parts of life, but you’ll become able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.”

Counting your blessings can genuinely boost your brain power and feel-good factor by raising levels of serotonin, dopamine and other neurochemicals that help us manage our emotions. Gratitude lifts our mood immediately, but proponents suggest that after three weeks of practising gratitude, people start to experience real positive change.

How being grateful helps your career and strengthens relationships 

From leadership courses to professional development workshops, gratitude is helping people flourish in the workplace. In fact, professor of psychology David DeSteno attributes success in everything – including a person’s career – to three emotions: gratitude, compassion and pride, the emotions that underpin social living. In addition to increasing levels of patience and perseverance, gratitude cultivates the ‘grit’ (or resilience) required to excel in challenging situations such as at work. People who practise gratitude have been found to be more empathetic. Instead of blaming or becoming defensive, fearful or avoidant, they listen better and are more open. Simply expressing a heartfelt thanks for another person’s effect on your day is an expression of positivity and can encourage closeness.

How being grateful feeds your soul

There’s a reason people say gratitude is food for the soul. In the process of practising gratitude, people often recognise that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. Gratitude helps people connect to something greater, be it others in their life, nature or a higher power.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes the spiritual life as an awakening of a joyful freedom, with the aim of having a benevolent and compassionate heart in spite of everything. In line with this, Tibetan monks and nuns offer prayers of gratitude even for the suffering they’ve experienced: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom”.

Written by Melissa Gardi. Article first appeared in Good Health Magazine