Mental Health America Indiana Blog

Mental Health America Indiana Blog. Keeping your mental health informed.

Why Gratitude Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving - original article by Maia Szalavitz published Nov, 2012

Why Gratitude Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving - original article by Maia Szalavitz published Nov, 2012

Being thankful is strongly linked with both mental and physical health— and can help to relieve stressdepression and addictions, among other conditions.

But what is gratitude? Psychologists view it as being able to maintain a world view that appreciates the positive.  That may sound like optimism, but unlike simply expecting the good, “appreciation” requires recognizing that happy outcomes are not just the result of your own hard work or moral uprightness, but depend on the efforts of others and, for the more spiritually-minded, on divine providence as well.

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This makes it a fundamentally social emotion:  you are grateful either to other people or to some sort of higher power with whom you can communicate. And if you do not behave graciously, ingratitude can cause relational problems, which could deny you the type of social support that is needed to protect against stress and depression.

Numerous studies now link counting one’s blessings to health.  A recent analysis published in Personality and Individual Differences included nearly 1,000 Swiss adults, ranging from teenagers to people in their 80s.  It found that physical health was strongly linked with gratitude, basically because it improved psychological health.  Better psychological health meant that people were more likely to engage in health-promoting activities and to seek medical help when it was needed.  Not surprisingly, this kept people in better mental and physical condition than if they engaged in self-destructive behaviors and avoided necessary medical care.

Among those who are more spiritual, religious thankfulness, or gratitude toward God, can predict susceptibility to mental illness. In a 2003 study involving 2600 adults, those who were most spiritually thankful had a lower risk of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, bulimia and addictions including alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs.

Of course, it’s possible that mentally healthier people feel that they have more to be grateful for, which may explain some of their extra thankfulness.  However, because interventions aimed at improving gratitude seem to help with many of health conditions, it’s clear that whatever the reason, being thankful seems to have a strong relationship with health.  Studies show, for example, that interventions to increase gratitude improve impaired body image by 76% and can help treat generalized anxiety disorder in similarly dramatic fashion.

So how does gratitude improve health?  On one level, it helps people to sleep better.  Since disturbed sleep is linked to almost all mental illnesses, factors that improve sleep tend to alleviate some of these disorders.  A 2009 study of 401 people— 40% of whom had clinical sleep disorders— found that the most grateful people had better sleep quality, normalized sleep duration (not too long or too short), were able to fall asleep faster at night and also had less daytime tiredness compared to those who weren’t as thankful.

The key to reaping gratitude’s benefits seemed to involve what people thought about as they tried to fall asleep:  while grateful folks accentuated the positive, the others were consumed by worries and fears.  So mentally counting blessings before drifting off can help fight anxiety and depression, not just by replacing depressive and anxious thoughts but by making refreshing sleep easier to attain.

The most common ways to improve gratitude— making “gratitude lists” or keeping a daily diary focused on the things you are grateful for — build on this positive-focused thinking and are often a critical part of 12-step programs for addictions.

And they are effective, as a study tracking feelings of thanks and school satisfaction among a group of sixth and seventh graders showed. In the study, 221 children were assigned to write either a daily list of five things they were most grateful for, or of the hassles they experienced, or no list at all. The gratitude group reported greater satisfaction with school three weeks later compared to the other kids, especially those who focused on hassles.  That’s a potentially significant benefit since contentment at school is linked to academic performance and dissatisfaction is correlated with antisocial behavior like drinking and drug use. The authors write, “[T]hese findings suggest that gratitude has both immediate and long-term effects on positive psychological functioning.”

And those effects may be self-sustaining to a certain extent as well. One study found that compared to those who didn’t experience extensive thankfulness, grateful people saw the help they received from others as being more costly to the giver and more valuable to themselves. In addition, they also interpreted deeper expressions of kindness and caring from these acts.  These perceptions are likely to make people behave more gratefully towards others — since if you perceive the help you receive as being of little worth and primarily the result of self interest, you are less likely to be appreciative.

That may explain why gratefulness is a desirable trait in friends and colleagues, and why attempts to become more grateful can be an important part of improving many relationships.

So while it’s easy to focus on grievances during the hectic holiday season, try introducing a little gratefulness instead. Sure, there may be a bit of selfishness in that, since you may be motivated primarily to improve your own health, but it turns out that gratitude can change your perspective — in a contagious way that may ultimately help more than just you alone.


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How Do You Find Happiness - written by DONNA M. WHITE, LPCI, CACP

How Do You Find Happiness - written by DONNA M. WHITE, LPCI, CACP

Happiness is defined as “a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? So what makes happiness so hard to attain?

One of the common reasons we find it so difficult to find happiness is due to our perception of what it really is. Our ability to be happy depends on how we define it.

For many, happiness is defined by what has been achieved, what has been accomplished, or material things we have obtained.

While these things can contribute to the feeling of being happy, do they really bring us true happiness?

So what is happiness? Where does it come from? How do we achieve it?

  • Live Our “Best Life.”For starters we can begin by living what I like to call our “best life.” This consists of being the best version of ourselves we can be. It involves self-acceptance and no longer comparing ourselves to others. Living our best life also includes no longer using things to measure our happiness, but focusing on the feeling. Practicing mindfulness can also help us achieve happiness. In doing this we can fully experience the moment and learn to engage with each moment on its terms, taking things as they come. When we are able to accept things for what they are, we can be happier.
  • Practice daily gratitude.Gratitude determines our attitude. As we practice gratitude, it eventually becomes second nature. We become able to find the beauty in small things and appreciate all life has to offer.
  • Learn the art of letting go.When we learn to let go, we find the path to freedom. By learning to let go, we are no longer held captive by our past or lingering negative emotions.

These are other things we can do to get ourselves in a feel-good mood.

  • Smile.Everyone knows a smile is contagious. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, force a smile and keep smiling. If you don’t give into that feeling of wanting to smile, you will eventually get the giggles from looking so silly.
  • Smell something that makes you happy.The sense of smell is very powerful and can trigger several moods and reactions. Why not smell your way to happiness? Sniff your favorite flower, inhale your favorite fragrance, or indulge in the aromas of your favorite food. When I’m feeling down, I tend to smell lavender. I not only enjoy the smell, but it also has some calming and relaxing properties.
  • Do something good for someone else.If you can’t put a smile on your face, put a smile on someone else’s. Doing a good deed will often result in that good, bubbly feeling of joy. When you’ve made someone’s day, how can you avoid a smile?
  • Do something you enjoy that you haven’t done in a while.Remember that feeling of complete happiness when the wind blows in your face as you swing on a swing, or when you play a good game of baseball, or make a nice batch of cookies? Well, get up and get moving! There is no pick-me-up like doing something pleasurable you haven’t done in a while. Think back to little things that have made you happy and explore those again.
  • Laugh, laugh, laugh.Just as a smile is contagious, so is laughter. Watch a funny movie or reminisce about something funny and just laugh. If you can’t think of anything to laugh at, just start laughing and keep thinking. You’re bound to eventually think of something funny or continue laughing at yourself.

These are a few suggestions, but happiness is unique and so is your path. Find what makes you happy today and live life to the fullest. Edith Wharton was quoted saying “if only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.”

Stop trying to be happy or thinking about being happy and challenge yourself to do what makes you happy. Find what makes you happy today and live life to the fullest.

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