Count your blessings. We’ve all heard it. But, what does it mean? It turns out that counting your blessings, aka being grateful for what you have, can physically change your brain and make you happier. In the day and age of the 24-hour news cycle that is filled with dark and troubling headlines, it’s easy to become depressed and anxious. One way to help counteract these feelings is at once simple and complex. It’s gratitude.
Several years ago, I was on a panel of alumni from Vanderbilt University. We were talking to college and graduate students about tips for being in the workplace. Amber Lehman, who worked on her microbiology Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and then launched a career as a successful fashion stylist at Amber Lehman Styling, was on the panel with me. She said something that I had always innately known but had never articulated in thought or word. She basically advised the group to express their gratefulness for their opportunities — to say thank you to those giving them a job or helping them out. She said something along the lines of, “It’s a rarity to see gratitude today, and simply being grateful for the opportunities given to you, and expressing it, will get you far in the workplace.” While the jaded and cynical would see that as manipulative, in truth expressing gratitude has a positive impact whether you are a friend, family member, employee or boss. And unfortunately, expressing gratitude stands out as it’s so rarely done.
There have been a flurry of studies and articles on the power of gratitude. This article in Newsweek cites multiple studies that prove 1) Grateful people are more hopeful and healthier; 2) Gratitude improves sleep quality; 3) Gratitude increases self-esteem; 4) Gratitude increases helpfulness and empathy; and 5) Gratitude increases your resilience. This article in New York Magazine discusses how gratitude has been shown to actually change your brain, stating that “the more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits.” And then there is this article discussed recently on the “TODAY” show. It states, “‘Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,’ said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis. ‘It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.’ One recent study from the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine found that people who were more grateful actually had better heart health, specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.”
So, how can you purposefully be more grateful when life is just rushing by? Months ago, a very busy friend shared how impactful the Five Minute Journal was for him. He suggested the Five Minute Journal app (you can also buy it as a physical journal). Notifications are sent morning and night, and when you log in, it greets you with a new, positive quote each day. The app presents you with the same set of questions each day, and to a certain extent you can modify these questions in the settings.
I don’t fill out my Five Minute Journal each day, but I try to most days. Those reminders help me refocus in the midst of the chaos of life to slow down, create a plan to have a positive impact that very day, and then to reflect on what I’m grateful for. Basically, it’s about deliberately recognizing the good things in life, being kind, doing good and counting your blessings. At least that is how I like to think about it. And, as those articles say, it actually changes your brain to be wired to have a more positive outlook on life and offers additional health benefits as well. And, oh yeah, the people around you will be grateful too. Building a stronger community can start with each one of us taking the time to recognize what we are grateful for.
For all the time we spend chasing the elusive and overlooking what we have — trying to change our bodies, fighting the aging process, wishing that our loved ones would change, seeing our homes for what they are not instead of what they are, seeing our own lives for what we have not accomplished — we could instead make the simple change and be grateful for what our bodies have done for us, for what age has given us, for all that each of our loved ones is, not what they are not, for all the shelter and good memories our homes have provided and for all that each of our lives has accomplished. You can start living a better life today.
In the end, in a world where the headlines can seem overwhelming and may be weighing you down, we don’t have answers, but we do know that the science says counting your blessings and being grateful is a good place to start.