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March 2022 Newsletter
Staying healthy is a central goal in many people’s lives. Health advice is everywhere, but much of it focuses mainly on the body. In HECL’s monthly Newsletter we often emphasize mental health too. As researchers continue to investigate what influences our health, we are finding that physical health and mental health are more closely linked than we realized.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as the state of well-being where every individual realizes his or her own potential, manages the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community.
This month we will focus on the impact of gratitude on mental health. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context. In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. It is much more than saying thank you, rather a sense of wonder, appreciation for life. Sometimes it takes a serious illness or other tragic event for us to appreciate the good aspects of life, but active gratitude promotes thankfulness independently from such circumstances.
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, being grateful also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
Practicing gratitude can have profound health benefits. Scientific studies conducted in Harvard showed for instance that people who actively express gratitude are more optimistic and feel better about their lives, but surprisingly also exercise more and have fewer visits to physicians than those who focus on discontent or sources of aggravation.
Other clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep, which is the opposite of what stress does. Other studies show that thankfulness predicts a significantly lower risk of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, as well as it can lower blood pressure and improve immune function.
People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices, and not just from luck or their innate character. Gratitude is both an attitude and a practice. We can learn to cultivate gratitude. Here are some ways to practice it on a regular basis.
You can nurture relationships with other by writing words to express your enjoyment and appreciation of their impact in your life. Mutual appreciation for each other often results in a more satisfying relationship. If you cannot or do not dare send or even read it for them you can simply think about and thank someone mentally.
Keep a gratitude journal:
Make it a habit to remind yourself of the little joys in the often fast- paced everyday life. This is a habit which you can have before you go to sleep or when you wake up in the morning.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you are grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, the presence of a child, etc.).
Giving the space to acknowledge and experience a multitude of emotions, even negative ones such as anger and grief, is necessary to increase mental strength and resilience. Contrast in the mind between good and hard time is fertile ground for gratefulness.
Gratitude is a practice that may actually change your perception of well-being, but as a result of scientific research it is also a good medicine for the body. Devoting time to family and friends, appreciating what we have, living in the moment, maintaining optimism are important parts of expressing gratitude, but what makes the difference is to do it consistently so that it becomes second-nature.
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