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Here we are again at that wonderful time of year when we gather as family and friends to think about and give thanks for all of our bounteous blessings. But I’ve also been thinking about those I love who are suffering from overwhelming personal problems, critical illness, depression and financial worries, who might find it hard to “count their blessings” right now.

Knowing that some of these burdened loved ones will be gathering round our Thanksgiving table I have been praying for inspiration and searching for ideas as to what I can do or say to lift their spirits.

In my quest I came across some very interesting information on gratitude and how it may be one of the most overlooked tools we have to meet life’s many challenges.

The Amazing Benefits of Being Grateful

Scientific research shows that gratitude has some incredible benefits and that a daily practice literally rewires the brain for better health and increased happiness. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier, less depressed and healthier.

The findings reveal that cultivating and practicing gratitude on a daily basis can actually reshape your neural pathways and rewire your brain into thinking more positively; thus increasing your ability to handle challenging and difficult situations, lift depression and lessen physical pain.

These mental and physical health benefits have been well documented. According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, feeling gratitude or performing acts of kindness stimulates the hypothalamus (the part of our brain that regulates a number of bodily functions including stress); flooding the brain with a chemical called dopamine which produces the sensation of well being, happiness, pleasure and vitality.

I was amazed to find extensive research results and data showing what gratitude looks like in the brain, and how the neurological effects of gratitude produce the following health benefits:

  1. Expressing gratitude strengthens our body and brain by lowering cortisol, the stress hormone, and raising dopamine, the “feel-good” neurohormone.
  2. Cultivating gratitude improves personal relationships.
  3. Feelings of gratitude will decrease pain levels due to influx of dopamine.
  4. Gratitude promotes better sleep, strengthens our immune system boosts healing and faster regeneration of the body.
  5. Gratitude relieves stress; makes us more resilient to trauma and stressful events. In a study on gratitude by McCraty and Colleagues in 1998, they had volunteer subjects focus on developing appreciation. Twenty-three percent showed a decrease in cortisol—the most prominent stress hormone. But even more impressive is that 80% of participants showed changes in heart rate variability; a direct result of reduced stress levels.
  6. Pondering blessings and expressing gratitude reduces anxiety and depression. Using MRI scans, significant changes were observed in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain where emotions are registered and controlled; resulting in better management of negative emotions (like guilt and anger) while producing more positive emotions such as patience, empathy and kindness, thus linking the benefits of gratitude to positive emotions.
  7. Gratitude increases energy and vitality from having stronger immune systems (thanks to better sleep) and to healthier hearts due to less stress. Including the more spiritual theories, such as being thankful makes us more hopeful, appreciative, optimistic, and that in itself boosts our vitality!

More Gratitude Please

So how do we develop more gratitude? According to behavioral research there are several ways. One very affective method is keeping a gratitude journal, in which you list something you are grateful for every day for a year. Once you list the more obvious things you will come to recognize and give thanks for the less noticeable things like your breath, a breeze on a hot day or the smell of the earth after the rain.

Other affective methods are gratitude prayers, meditating on your blessings or simply expressing your gratitude.

It seems like in today’s world we spend so much of our time and energy in wishing for or pursuing things we currently don’t have, or feel we should have. Gratitude reverses this thinking to help us appreciate the people and things we do have.

As members of the Church, we are blessed to be given the opportunity monthly to stand and bear our testimony of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and express publicly our gratitude for all of our blessings. Another great example of God revealing to His Prophets, years before any scientific data released, the importance of expressing gratitude on a regular basis for health of mind, body and spirit.

How absolutely wonderful to know that our Heavenly Father created our brain to reward us for expressing gratitude … an attribute He values highly and has counseled us to implement in our lives (see Alma 37:37); but also warns us against the lack thereof (D&C 59:21).

Expressing Gratitude Will Improve Your Life

So after learning all of this fascinating and encouraging information, I feel it important to share. Therefore, I am going to give all who gather at our Thanksgiving table their very own “Gratitude Journal” with the very first entry being a message from me saying how thankful I am for them, and how they have blessed my life.

Hopefully the journals will open up a discussion on the importance of gratitude and how the wonderful feeling of being thankful can lift, bless and strengthen us mentally, physically and spiritually, literally changing our lives for the better. And that’s something to celebrate all year round!

After reflecting on all that I’ve learned about the power of gratitude, I feel the most important thing is that gratitude begets gratitude. In part because it releases that magical life changing, brain altering neurohormone dopamine! That feel-good chemical correlated with the feeling of well being, happiness and joy. And once you start experiencing the benefits of gratitude, you’ll want to keep on feeling them. End result? The more you feel grateful, the more you’ll want to feel grateful. Now that’s what I call a win-win!

Happy Thanks-Giving!