The Science Behind Gratitude
Sounds a little far-fetched, right? Not so, says the latest research:
– A study conducted by the Tumor Center at the University of Regensburg, Germany took a look at the experience of breast cancer survivors seven years after the fact. 42% of the respondents said that keeping a “fighting spirit” and thinking positive were the most important bits of advice they would give other breast cancer patients.
– A report published in the journal of the American Psychological Association found that patients who displayed more gratitude in their lives were less prone to depression and also experienced less systemic inflammation.
– A study conducted by Capitol Medical University in Beijing found that there was a “significant relationship between positive emotions and blood pressure regulation among elderly people with cardiovascular disease.”
Current findings in the fields of positive psychology and neuro-psycho-immunology are pointing towards the connection between emotions (of any kind) and the workings of physical systems in the body. So what exactly is going on?
According to the late neuropsychoimmunologist and molecular biologist Candace Pert, PhD, (Molecules of Emotion: The Science behind Body-Mind Medicine), substances called lignands and receptor sites in the brain work together through peptides to form physical responses to emotional stimuli:
“…A chain reaction of biochemical events is initiated as tiny machines roar into action and, directed by the message of the ligand, begin any number of activities – manufacturing new proteins, making decisions about cell division, opening or closing ion channels, adding or subtracting energetic chemical groups such as the phosphates – to name just a few. In short, the life of the cell, what it is up to at any moment, is determined by which receptors are on its surface, and whether those receptors are occupied by ligands or not. On a more global scale, these minute physiological phenomena at the cellular level can translate to large changes in behavior, physical activity, even mood.”
In short, cultivating positive emotions on a regular basis can lead to higher immune system function, higher tolerance to infection, lower systemic inflammation and, ultimately, an increased chance of surviving the big illnesses like cancer or heart disease.
A lot less than you think! You can get the wheels turning towards gratitude and all the benefits that go along with it with the following:
A candle (preferred, but not necessary)
A warm cup of tea (again, preferred, but definitely not necessary)
A comfortable place to sit on the floor or on a chair, or lie down
45 minutes of your time (a lunch break will do it. If you have to eat too, make it an eating meditation)
An open mind and heart
An observant eye
Settle In (10 minutes). Close the door and turn off your cellphone and/or IPad. Light the candle and settle in for a moment. If you have a cup of your favorite tea, feel the warmth of the liquid emanating from cup around your fingers. Take a sip and taste the flavors. Feel your back on your pillow or chair. If you are lying down, feel the weight of gravity on your entire body. Breathe consciously, allowing each breath to settle you deeper into a state of relaxation.
Be Aware (15 minutes). Set the timer for 15 minutes. Be consciously aware of all those things you are grateful for. Simply allow them to come into your consciousness one by one. Can’t think of anything? Use these hints to get you started:
– Be thankful that your body is still circulating blood and keeping you alive. If you just focus on that, it is enough.
– Open your eyes and look around you. Can you see anything in your immediate environment to be grateful for, such as things of nature, photos of loved ones, or even the carpet or hardwood floor you are sitting or lying on? That is enough.
– Repeat the mantra Dhanya Vad, which loosely means, I feel gratitude, over and over again. That is enough. PS… It’s okay to repeat the mantra even if you don’t feel particularly grateful. Eventually you will, since these words have been used for thousands of years and have an energy all their own.
Reflect (15 minutes): Now take out that journal or notebook and that pen. Hey, even a piece of scrap paper and a crayon will do. Set the timer for 15 minutes. Write down all that that came to you over the last 15 minutes. Start each line with “I am grateful for…”. Then fill in the blank. Don’t expound on why you are grateful for it and don’t go off on a literary tangent about what exactly happened to make you feel that way. You can always go back and explain later; all this makes for great material for future journaling! Right now, however, we are interested in quantity, not quality. Don’t worry about misspellings or if anyone else will know what the heck you are talking about. JUST KEEP YOUR HAND MOVING UNTIL THE TIMER GOES OFF. If you get stuck, keep writing “I am grateful for…” until something else comes to mind. Here are some examples:
I am grateful that I am breathing.
I am grateful that I found a nickel on the street the other day and that it was “heads up.”
I am grateful for my kids.
I am grateful I don’t have kids.
I am grateful for my cat.
I am grateful for my goldfish.
I am grateful that my car still runs.
I am grateful for my mom’s cat.
I am grateful for cats in general.
I am grateful that the sun is shining.
I am grateful that they had chocolate fudge cookies in the break room the other day and that I ate one without feeling one iota of guilt.
And so on…
Transition Back To Your Day (5 minutes). Now take just a few minutes to ease back into your day. Stretch your legs and wiggle your toes. Do some shoulder stretches. Take a deep breath. Notice if your mood has changed since you started the exercise. If so, in what way? Be sure to keep that piece of paper or journal handy for when you start to feel like a Grinch. Read the list you made often. It can give you, and your immune system, a real lift!
TIP: If you want to feel even better, repeat the whole process the next day!
How do you get into the Groove of Gratitude? Share your practice with us in the comments section below!