Gratitude Matters

by | Nov 22, 2016 | Integrative Medicine

gratitudeThe four basics of health we mentioned last week are just that – basics. They’re important, but they focus exclusively on the physical. You simply can’t have optimal physical health without also tending to the health of mind and spirit.

This is reflected in Dr. Joe’s 8 Keys to Radiant Health, the last of which especially comes to the fore at this time of year:

Gratitude and Service to Others
There is nothing so powerful in relieving our pain as helping another relieve theirs. What would happen if you started most days by writing down 10 things you are grateful for? What would happen if you spent a little of your life helping others to live better in some way? A little kindness and sweetness go forever.

Of course, it’s not always easy. Turn to the news, and you find more than enough cause for anxiety, grief, anger, and sorrow – emotions that can sometimes leave us wondering what on Earth we have to be grateful for.

There’s a wonderful saying from Gautama Buddha that’s helpful for keeping perspective:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.

What often gets in the way of our gratitude is fear. And fear, Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

And those are all definitely things to be grateful for.

For gratitude as a practice isn’t about the big things – a huge favor done for us, say, or material goods that bring us comfort or pride. It’s about cultivating a mindful attitude toward what we have right now, in this moment, and recognizing its worth. It doesn’t mean ignoring the bad or the wrong or the unjust. Focusing on the good doesn’t erase the bad.

What it does do is make us stronger and more resilient in the face of what’s bad or wrong or unjust. We become more able to take action toward making things right.

Over the years, a wide swath of research has cast light on the varied health benefits of gratitude. As Dr. Robert A. Emmons has explained, the benefits that come come because of how a grateful way of being changes us.

“Gratitude works because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system.”

Research shows that when we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered and that can have protective benefits on the body, including decreasing cortisol levels and perhaps increasing oxytocin – the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel so good.

And it’s a practice that you can cultivate. Keep a gratitude journal. Meditate or pray daily. Make a point of regularly thanking others for the things they do for you. Perform acts of loving kindness to show others that you value them.

Gratitude should be an everyday thing, not just a Thanksgiving Day thing.

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