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Recent studies show growing evidence of gratitude’s benefits — including structural and functional brain changes, improved physical health and improved wellbeing and resilience after trauma or burnout.

Gratitude — the ability to be thankful for what you have or experience — carries significant weight toward our general wellbeing, according to recent research. Sarah Martin, MSN, RN, of Appalachian State University’s Beaver College of Health Sciences explains how.

“It’s not so much the actual events in our lives that are stressful but our responses to the stress that affect our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being,” said Martin, a clinical faculty member in the Department of Nursing.

She pointed to recent gratitude studies published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, NeuroImage and other journals that show growing evidence of gratitude’s benefits — including structural and functional brain changes, improved physical health and improved wellbeing and resilience after trauma or burnout.

Citing the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkely, Martin said gratitude supports four main aspects of life:

  • It allows celebration of the present.
  • It blocks toxic emotions.
  • It enhances stress resilience.
  • It strengthens social ties and self-worth.

As a nursing educator, she applies gratitude research to improve the resilience of health care providers, but she said gratitude can help anyone.

How to cultivate gratitude

How can we cultivate more gratitude in our lives? Martin recommends these practices:

1. Take time for awareness and quiet reflection. Through mindfulness or meditation, all senses may open to what has been given to you, she said.

2. Keep a gratitude journal. Jotting down a few things that you are grateful for each day can allow you to acknowledge the goodness in your life, potentially blocking negative emotions.

3. Practice the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise. Each night, reflect on three things you are grateful for from your day, and do this for two weeks. This positive psychology tool developed by Dr. Martin Seligman shows that reflecting on what’s positive encourages people to see more of what’s positive in their lives, rather than the negative.

The practice continues to be studied at the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality, Martin said, where it has been found to lower burnout and depression, improve work–life balance and quality of sleep, reduce conflict at work and boost levels of happiness.

“Research shows this habit can impact happiness as much as some medications and lasts six months,” Martin said.

4. Write a letter to someone you have never fully thanked. The recipient could be someone you’re grateful to for contributing to your wellbeing. In the letter, describe the benefits you have received from the person and how their actions made you feel. You might, then, read the letter aloud to the person and talk about it together afterward.

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