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What Really is Gratitude?

The dictionary defines gratitude as the expression of appreciation for what one has. It is a state of thankfulness. There is no monetary value in the expression but a value in the interpersonal connection the expression shares.

Gratitude is a powerful emotion, but can easily get lost in the day to day scheme of life. Researchers have measured the effects of gratitude and as a result, found that gratitude isn't just feeling thankful; it's an appreciation for someone or something that produces longer-lasting positive effects. Brown and Wong (2017) reflect on the greater effects in this article.

When practiced regularly, gratitude is associated with happiness and healthiness. Gratitude has been found to enhance empathetic awareness, self-esteem, spirituality, and overall optimistic outlook. Furthermore, researchers have established an overwhelming connection between health and gratitude. A simple daily gratitude journal can help ease stressors, build on your emotional awareness, and improve the quality of sleep (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

The psychological effects that gratitude offers are also found in physiological components of the brain. Research results found that when individuals report grateful emotions, the brain demonstrated increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (Fox, 2019). This area of the brain is associated with understanding differing perspectives, empathetic awareness, and feelings of relief (Fox, 2019). This part of the brain also serves to help regulate emotions and support the abilities for us to process stress (Euston, Gruber, & McNaughton, 2013).

Knowing this information reflects the necessity that we should actively strive to experience more feelings of gratitude. In doing so, we enhance our resilience to be able to process stressors we encounter, improve our own emotional regulation, and better our own health. Gratitude should not be experienced only in November, or at Thanksgiving, but should be experienced daily.

Emmons and McCullough (2003) identified that gratitude comes in two stages:

  1. The individual must acknowledge the good in their life. The recognition that overall life is good and worth living.

  2. The individual recognizes sources of goodness that are outside of the self. We become thankful for the other people, animals, or world that brings goodness into our lives.

Considering these two steps to experiencing gratitude, cultivating gratitude is first achieved by slowing down and becoming aware of your feelings.

Identify five good things that you're grateful for. Do this right before you go to sleep daily. Some days the thing you are grateful for might be as small as hearing the birds chirping or as big as falling in love.

Create your own grateful emotions by simply sharing with others something that you are grateful for about them. Some days we may not always feel grateful but by seeking inside of us and sharing gratitude with others we can foster the experience within.

Give back to others. Volunteering for someone or something that may be less fortunate than you can increase our awareness of the things we might take for granted. Not only can this help you realize how fortunate you are but creates an opportunity to improve the lives of others.

With Thanksgiving only a couple of days away, challenge yourself to experience gratitude beyond just this week and see what positive impacts it might have on your life!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Brown, J., & Wong, J. (2017). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved from

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377

Euston, D. R., Gruber, A. J., & McNaughton, B. L. (2012). The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 76(6), 1057-1070. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.12.002

Fox, G. (2019, October 07). What Science Reveals About Gratitude's Impact on the Brain. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

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