Does gratitude impact our health and happiness?

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There's an old saying that if you've forgotten the language of gratitude, you'll never be on speaking terms with happiness. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and inter-faith scholar, would likely agree with this old proverb. In a 2013 TedTalk on gratitude in Edinburgh, Scotland, he suggested that happiness is an outcome of gratitude in our lives. He points out that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but rather gratitude that makes us happy.

This is not just a trite, Hollywood idea. There have been some serious studies into the science of gratitude and how it benefits both our mental and physical health in profound ways – ways that we are only beginning to understand. For example, research from the University of Toronto in 2009 showed the connection between depression and ingratitude. People who are grateful are generally less prone to depression.

It seems, though, in many areas of life we have exchanged the language of gratitude for the discourse of complaint. We complain about everything from the weather to our health, to our jobs and more. And, it’s not good for us. Gratitude shifts our thoughts from the negative aspects of life to noticing and appreciating the positive incidents, even if they are small.

I thought about this while on a recent, difficult journey to the UK. What should have been an overnight trip, took three days due to a series of airline ‘mishaps’. Though the marathon journey was worrying – especially as I had a meeting to attend – I decided to be appreciative of all that was good along the way. That included expressing gratitude to the airline staff who were trying to make things easier for us, the taxi driver who tried his best to find yet another hotel we were supposed to stay at, and even the cleaners in the airport.

And it made a difference. For the most part, I remained relaxed and calm, even enjoying some humour-filled moments. When I got to my destination, I completed my meeting with no ill-effects, even though I had had only about four hours of sleep in three days. What helped? I actually prayed for gratitude. I wanted to ensure that my time was not wasted in anger, frustration and criticism. A recollected phrase, written long before the current challenges of airline travel, spoke to me about the impact that gratitude or ingratitude can have on our experience and well-being.

Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more.

How did that relate to my situation? I noticed the little moments of kindness and goodness on this journey, and was grateful. This opened me up to recognizing and experiencing more goodness. I treated others with kindness and they reciprocated.

In particular, one aspect of the experience highlights this. During this long, drawn-out journey I made friends with a young woman who was looking after a small child We teamed up together, looked out for one another, and in the ensuing days developed a beautiful friendship that I would not have experienced otherwise.

Gratitude allows us to move through life with more grace, affording greater rest and peace. It opens our thoughts to notice the good all around, even in trying circumstances. How can that be anything less than health-giving?

For many of us, Thanksgiving this year will be a time for travel, long lines and inevitable delays. It’s a great opportunity to try out these ideas. But whether we are travelling or not, committing to a language of gratitude for the everyday things of life opens our eyes to new possibilities and makes a huge difference to our health and happiness.

Anna Bowness-Park writes about the connection between thought and health, and the part that spirituality can play in balancing our lives. She is a Christian Science practitioner.