We as human beings tend to pay attention first to what might hurt us, rather than the good things in our lives—we are wired that way. It makes sense. In order to be happy, we first need to be able to outrun the tiger. Noticing what is missing or not working, or noticing red flags in our world, is a primary survival skill. However, training yourself to take notice of what you do have—and be grateful for it—can lift your spirits and create optimism, which can significantly improve your quality of life.
What makes gratitude such a potent antidote to what drags us down? First, it brings us into community, into connection with our world. While we are noticing what is not working, we can feel very isolated. Focusing on what is potentially dangerous raises our anxiety and fear. Anxiety causes stress hormones in our body to be elevated. Over time, according to a 2004 study in Psychological Bulletin, “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry,” long-term stress can deplete us and suppress immune function, making us more likely to get sick.
When we feel gratitude, it brings the heart into a more coherent state, and promotes health and a sense of well-being, according to research from the Institute of HeartMath, an organization that studies stress and emotion. Our days feel brighter and it is easier to handle the challenges life inevitably gives us. Gratitude also helps put things into perspective. When our heart opens and relaxes with gratitude, we feel better, which can help people around us also feel better.
Several years ago, my cousin thanked me for an act of generosity that had happened years before. At first I was surprised, and then I realized her gratitude was genuine and that my small act of kindness had changed her life. As she thanked me, I felt a warmth between us that was palpable. We both felt better for her sharing.
This time of year is excellent for remembering and offering gratitude to those in our lives who have made a difference. At my family’s Thanksgiving gathering we have a tradition of starting the meal with words of gratitude: for the food, for the cooks, for our families, for the friends who are like family, for the day of gathering together in community, and most of all for the love between us. Every year it gets richer and the room feels warmer and more connected.
I have a friend who makes it a point around Thanksgiving, to write to all her clients and friends and offer each a word or two of gratitude for what they have meant to her in the last year. I love receiving her letter each year. It lifts my spirits and makes my day.
Would you like to make a difference in someone’s life during November—our month of gratitude in the American culture? Follow my friend’s example. Find a quiet spot and bring to mind those people in your inner circle. As you contemplate them, write down what about them you are grateful for—their acts, thoughts or words that helped you in some way. Then share with each person. Most who have done this exercise say it creates a well of good feeling for both writer and recipient.
When you look at the world this way, to give is to receive.
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, C.M.T., C.S.T.-D., author of Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to Your Body’s Wisdom, is also the creator of the training and audio series, Healing From the Core: A Journey Home to Ourselves (healingfromthecore.com). She has taught CranioSacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release for the Upledger Institute since 1986, and for the past 20 years has been on faculty at the Esalen Institute.