The Science of Gratitude

I am not a motivational speaker, a hippy or affiliated with any particular religion. I am just your average Joe student who stresses over exams, stays up late to finish assignments and worries about my vocational future. The next part may sound a bit ‘weird’ to some, but over the last few years I have begun to truly realise the marvel of life (without even taking any philosophy papers!). This has probably been spurred on by my fascination with physiology and anatomy in my undergrad years. My mind is blown every time I think about the microscopic processes that are going on every second in each of the 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Appreciating this miracle of life can also be described as expressing gratitude.

Gratitude is intertwined in the current health and wellbeing trend which is plastered all over social media outlets and is providing entrepreneurial opportunities for food manufacturers and fitness fanatics. As a child, my family would always have dinner together at the table and every night without fail my Mum would make us each say something that we are thankful for that day, something that made us happy or something new that we had learnt. I would always wonder why we had to do that, I just wanted to eat! This early exposure to the concept of gratitude has been a great influence on my adult life, and had greatly shaped my perception of the world.

What exactly is Gratitude?

Gratitude has been described as having two core components, the first of which simply accepting and recognising that there is good in the world, despite the focus on the negative in the news. Secondly, is it the recognition that these good things are external to us – such as the generosity and kindness of family, friends and strangers or just the simple beauty of nature.  

In the present day gratitude seems to be overridden by the need to be successful, to study, to work hard and to stay busy. But by pausing for a moment and truly appreciating the abundance that we have, in any form, we are bettering ourselves both mentally and physically. Furthermore, we are subconsciously developing a more positive environment for people who we interact with on a daily basis.

As I have gotten older I have grown to appreciate all aspects of my life from simple things such as being able to brush my teeth with clean water, being able to go for a walk at almost any hour and not fear for my safety to more complex aspects of living such as having a high level of self-motivation and something that I am incredibly grateful for on a daily basis – the ability to learn and be educated. The list goes on, and not a day goes by where I do not consciously make an effort to stop and think about how lucky we are to live in such a great place.

Gratitude and thankfulness are common themes across many religions - America even has a day dedicated to it! Great philosophers, novelists and entrepreneurs have acknowledged the significance of being grateful and its ensuing benefits which have been backed up with scientific research.

I have chosen the following five advantages of practising gratitude from a myriad of studies, they also highlight how gratitude is a holistic tool which taps into social, physical and mental wellbeing.

  1. Grateful people are more likely to behave empathetically and treat each other in an altruistic manner, more sensitive to others emotions and less likely to retaliate in stressed situations.

  2. Physical benefits – More likely to experience fewer aches and pains.

  3. Open to more opportunities, in business and also new relationships. It makes you and others happy!

  4. Fall asleep faster and maintain a quality sleep for longer.

  5. An ability to deal with adverse circumstances in a more philosophical way. Reduction in anxiety and depression.

One of the most down-to-earth and successful entrepreneurs, Sir Richard Branson, has repeatedly expressed his view on the importance of gratitude, giving back and he has dedicated multiple ventures to making the world a better place. In a business sense, Branson stated “Being thankful in the workplace is particularly important. As all good managers know, letting their teams know they appreciate their work can make all the difference to an employee's confidence, morale and wellbeing.”

Some ambitious and perfectionist personality types have been shown to struggle with being content in the way things are, but these people are not excluded from the benefits of giving thanks and practising mindfulness, in fact it may be even better!

My challenge to anyone reading this - make gratitude part of your daily lives from today! Do it with meaning, as Gertrude Stein once said “silent gratitude is not much use to anyone”.  Various techniques have been proven to be effective and you may find that some are more suited to your lifestyle than others:

  • Keep a daily journal with 2 – 3 things you are grateful for that day. A number of apps have been developed to make this process easier and more habitual.

  • Handwrite a thank-you letter or note.

  • Similar to above, but more convenient, send an email or text to someone that has done something nice or just say thanks for being awesome

  • Teach gratitude to kids from an early age. Although they may not fully understand it now, they will with time.

I will finally leave you with a quote from Cicero (106BC – 43 BC), an exceedingly influential Roman philosopher and politician –

“Gratitude is not the only greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all others”.