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Can Being Grateful Make You Happier?

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This article was originally published by Van Winkle's, the website dedicated to better sleep and wakefulness.

During the fall-winter holiday season, from early November through New Year’s, when we’re feasting on turkey and spending time with family and friends, most of us will take a moment and remember to give thanks. But a growing body of research underscores why cultivating and expressing gratitude throughout the year — for small acts of kindness, the beauty in nature, the people and experiences that bring joy to our lives — is a quality that can help you have a better, happier life. And it shouldn’t be reserved for a national holiday.

Please don’t go all New Age on me. I like science.

Not to worry. This comes from none other than the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications.

Studies show that a deep sense of gratitude can increase happiness, boost immunity, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase feelings of connectedness. Evidence indicates that grateful people are more resilient, have stronger relationships and — wait for it — they also sleep better.

Not that you should view gratitude as simply a strategy to improve your health and happiness — that would kind of contradict the point. Defeat the purpose. Whatever.

So how does an ungrateful wretch go about learning to be thankful?

First of all, practice makes perfect — consistently and regularly acknowledging the things you’re thankful for in your life. This means more than a passing thank you to whoever happens to be listening.

According to research by Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., perhaps the leading scholar on the science of gratitude, practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by about 25 percent. When you give your own happiness a boost by incorporating thankfulness into your daily routine, you are left with enough feel-good-feelings to sustain you if something bad outside of your control happens.

Research suggests that one of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to keep a personal gratitude journal. Studies have linked a cornucopia of benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we are grateful. Putting pen to paper promotes mindfulness; it reminds us to notice and make note of the little things we so often dismiss (or forget about) throughout the course of a busy day. Something like a song that sets our foot tapping, or the brilliant fall foliage outside our window, or even something as simple as a smile from a passing stranger.

Journaling, really?

Well, yes, but it’s not just about taking notes. According to Emmon, we can cultivate more grateful thinking by eliminating thoughts of boredom and apathy, and by consciously focusing our attention on seeing things as new, different and exciting. Whether you write it down or simply reflect on it, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses really will help you go from feeling more grateful to being more grateful.

Gratitude also takes us outside our cocoon of self-absorption and entitlement. “We see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships that are mutually reciprocal,” Emmons says. “Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying.” Acknowledging the goodness in others inspires us to do good. It motivates us to pay it forward, to be helpful and kind to others. Studies show that those with a heightened sense of appreciation are more altruistic, compassionate and forgiving. They are also more resilient.

So gratitude is like superfood for the mind.

Yup. Gratitude leads to better physical health in countless ways. Grateful people have stronger immune systems, cope better with stress, are proactive about their healthcare needs, eat a healthier diet and exercise more often. A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, found that thankful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than those who don’t make giving thanks a priority.

Being grateful may also increase your social intelligence and reduce materialism — because, let’s face it, there is nothing about keeping up with the Joneses that sustains happiness.

-- Kristen Spina