The Science Behind Gratitude (and How It Can Change Your Life)

Choosing to be thankful may well be an easy and accessible way to boost your happiness. There is a definite link between gratitude and happiness. First, what is happiness? When we think of happiness, we usually think of it as a subjective sense of well-being, a feeling of joy and satisfaction. What many people may not realize is that happiness isn’t just an emotion or fleeting feeling. It’s about how good you feel and also how satisfied you are with your life.

What Happens to Our Bodies When We're Grateful?

Much scientific evidence has shown that gratitude has far-reaching effects on our health. When people are thankful and are good with things as they are, their physical health reflects that. They’re more likely to exercise, eat better, and take care of their health.

Researchers over the years point to lower stress, reduced pain and improved immune systems as a result of being thankful. Even better blood pressure and positive effects on the heart have been linked to gratitude.

Gratitude has a strong positive impact on psychological well-being as well. It increases self-esteem, enhances positive emotions, and makes us more optimistic.

When we feel deep happiness, our bodies are producing all sorts of wonderful chemicals. Keller explains more specifically how rewarding it is for our bodies.

Experiencing gratitude activates neurotransmitters like dopamine, which we associate with pleasure, and serotonin, which regulates our mood. It also causes the brain to release oxytocin, a hormone which induces feelings like trust and generosity which promotes social bonding, and feeling connected. — AMY E. KELLER, PSYD

How to Practice Gratitude

Just like a muscle, when you exercise your thankfulness more often, you’re more likely to see beneficial effects.

Activate Gratitude Regularly

The best way to make gratitude a habit is not to wait for special moments. Some people have been told by their therapists they can keep stress and anxiety at bay by keeping a gratitude journal. Journaling every day is also correlated with an increase in happiness.

But if you’re not ready for that kind of commitment, there’s an easy way to begin on your road to being grateful. Just pay attention. Start identifying things you might take for granted. Then, take a moment to be thankful for them.

Be sure to consider positive actions and events that might seem small, common-place, or inconsequential. Here are some examples:

  • Be thankful for the warm cup of tea you are enjoying.

  • Look up and appreciate the roof over your head.

  • Notice the small acts of kindness that you forgot to pay attention to.

  • Be thankful someone waved your car through in the parking lot.

  • Be appreciative of the friendly customer in line at Starbucks who allowed you to go ahead of them.

  • Take a moment to be grateful that your best friend texted you to see how your headache was.

  • Stop being thankful that your hard-working mother texted you to have a nice night.

Do Gratitude Exercises

Your goal is to practice with intention and add this science-backed habit to increase your happiness. Do you feel that you’re too busy, especially with work? Keller encourages her clients to practice being thankful even at work.

According to a recent issue of a newsletter published by Harvard Health, gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness based on positive psychology research. The newsletter suggests that gratitude helps people to “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

So, take some time to be thankful. It can impact your happiness and enhance many aspects of your life.