If you are looking for a way to boost your happiness, health and relationships with one simple practice, the answer to your search is this: Gratitude. Studies have shown that cultivating an attitude of thankfulness in your life correlates with well-being, strengthened relationships with romantic partners and other individuals, and health benefits like a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure and improved sleep.
Scientists have yet to explain exactly how gratitude produces these impressive benefits, but there are some theories that perhaps gratitude increases brain-levels of dopamine, the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. In addition the Institute of Heartmath suggests that the positive effects begin in the heart, because their studies have shown that the rhythm of the heart becomes smooth and harmonious when we experience appreciation and other positive emotions.
No matter how gratitude works to improve mental and physical health, there is plenty of evidence available to suggest that gratitude is a worthwhile practice to add to your daily routine. But how do you actually incorporate an attitude of thankfulness into your busy life--especially when you are coping with a multitude of stresses and struggles? Can you still feel grateful when things are not going as well as you would like?
One interesting study reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that people who are aware of their mortality, such as those who have faced a life-threatening illness or near-death experience, are more likely to express gratitude than those who have not reflected on death.
While you might think that you have to wait until your life is moving in a positive direction before you can be grateful, this study suggests that difficult times might actually help you find the way to greater gratitude. So it is possible for us to become even more grateful when we are suffering because our losses remind us that life itself is precious and fleeting.
There are many excellent ideas for cultivating thankfulness in your daily life, like keeping a gratitude journal or reciting a gratitude prayer each evening before you go to sleep. But here's an idea for expressing your gratitude that will have additional positive benefits for you:
Write a thank-you note to someone in your life each day for 30 days.
The note you compose can be short and simple and may or may not actually be sent to the other person. The goal behind this practice is to focus each day on a person in your life, past or present, for whom you feel grateful and to express in writing why you are thankful for their presence on your life's path.
You should be able to think of 30 different people throughout your lifetime who have changed your life in some way. And not all of those interactions may have been positive when they occurred--sometimes people who have caused you pain in the past have actually helped you grow the most.
So the idea is to thank a variety of people for the help they have sent your way, even if some of it felt hurtful at the time. By doing this you will be sorting through your old memories of both joy and pain and healing many of the wounds you may have been carrying with you over the years.
Here is an excerpt from a thank-you note I wrote to my 4th-grade teacher:
Dear Mrs. Ingersoll,
Thank you for challenging me to be the best person I could be when I was 10-years old. You inspired me to dig deep and see what I was capable of, even though I felt afraid and unsure of myself at times. Thank you for not settling for anything less than my best work--you helped me set my standards high and reach beyond my limitations.
This practice helps you build a convincing body of evidence that life is good and that you have been blessed, even during difficult times. By intentionally expressing your appreciation for 30 days you will be creating a "habit of gratitude" that will help you stay in a state of thankfulness for your life in every situation.
In addition, if you actually do mail some of the thank-you notes you will increase the happiness of the people you write to and strengthen your relationships with them, as well. Join me in this 30-day challenge to put your gratitude in writing and change your life, one thank-you note at a time!
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.