Count your blessings, literally

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a friend for lunch. We are both ophthalmologists, moms, and busy community members involved in a variety of things. But we took the time out to sit together over a meal and connect. One of the things she shared with me is that she does daily gratitudes with her kids. I loved this idea and have started doing it with my boys in the morning before school.  In order to keep it going consistently, I make it very simple. Once we get in the car, and say our usual prayers, we each name 5 things we are grateful for.  It has been interesting observing their gratitudes get deeper and more reflective. They started out with things like: my eyes, my ears, my nose, my house, my shoes, my socks.  But now they have moved on to more detailed and personal things.  We often incorporate recent events, something we see out the car window at the moment, or play off one another’s ideas (sometimes straight copying).  I love this time of the morning, and I can tell that they do too.  They never resist or whine when I remind them to do it.  Practicing gratitude is replete with benefits in mind and body, as I will discuss below, and it’s a beautiful way to start the day.

One of my favorite reflections of gratitude was when my daughter surprised us last year at her high school graduation by thanking her father and I on her graduation cap.  Her gesture opened our hearts to her with even more generosity and love than was already pouring forth.  And that’s the beauty of gratitude.  Practicing it actually makes you joyful and brings more goodness into your life.  Studies have shown that gratitude interventions appear to significantly increase happiness, well-being, and positive mood. As a Muslim, none of the recent research and enthusiasm about practicing gratitude comes as a surprise to me.  It is a part of the fabric of Islamic belief. One of the most quoted verses of the Quran is: your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you’ (14:7).

So what is it about gratitude that makes such a positive impact?

Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has two key components, which he describes in a Greater Good essay, Why Gratitude Is Good.  “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”  Second, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Here are some of the interesting things I’ve learned about gratitude, all supported by results of scientifically sound studies:

  • brain areas have been identified that are likely involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude, providing further evidence for the idea that gratitude is an intrinsic component of the human experience
  • girls and women report feeling more grateful than boys and men
  • certain traits have been identified that act as barriers to gratitude; including envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism
  • social factors—including religion, cultural influences, and parenting styles—may influence a person’s tendency to experience gratitude
  • gratitude may be associated with many benefits for individuals, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, and decreased materialism
  • more grateful people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer from burnout
  • gratitude practices can increase people’s happiness and overall positive mood
  • in one study, grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation
  • in another study, heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards
  • grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events
  • even in people suffering from depression or anxiety, gratitude writing (along with ongoing counseling) was shown to improve their mental health more than counseling alone
  • more grateful adolescents are more interested and satisfied with their school lives, more kind and helpful, and more socially integrated

Although what I’m doing with my boys is a quick and easy variation of gratitude practices, I can still see the benefit in it.  More elaborate gratitude practices would including counting one’s blessings through journaling, writing gratitude letters to people in your life, or incorporating gratitude affirmations into meditation. 

Do you have a daily gratitude practice? If so, what is it and how has it helped you? If not, what is holding you back from starting?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

Reference:  Greater Good Magazine

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