KAREN OLSON, Contributing Author at Experience Life
photo by Getty Images

Boost your health, hope and happiness with a powerful dose of gratitude.

Ten years ago, Diana Rico began writing lists of the things she’s grateful for. An arts and entertainment journalist, independent filmmaker, and author who divides her time between Taos, N.M., Los Angeles and Denver, Rico says she needs to feel positive to do her creative work. And she’s found that she can reliably lift her mood just by writing down – first thing in the morning or last thing at night – 10 things for which she’s grateful.

“It changes my brain chemistry,” she says. “I feel much more empowered when I’m feeling positive.”

Today, Rico recommends the gratitude list to students in her writer’s-block workshops. She believes it’s easier for people to break through their fears and avoidance when they take note of and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them – a simple meal, flowers on the table, a child or a friendship. “I’ve never seen anybody not get something positive out of doing the gratitude list.”

As for herself, Rico has turned gratefulness into a way of life. “I actively try to practice gratitude all the time,” she says. “Everything is a blessing in some form.”

Rico is one of a growing number of people – from artists to psychologists to health researchers – who are recognizing the power of gratitude. Long held by many religions and philosophers as a central element of human virtue, gratitude is now being heralded by scientists as a verifiable component of a healthy life.

In their long-term scientific study on the nature of gratitude, psychologists Robert Emmons, PhD, and Michael McCullough, PhD, found that grateful people report “higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress.” Grateful people also tend to place less importance on material goods and are less envious of others.

Emmons and McCullough found that people who keep gratitude journals (as opposed to those who use their journals to describe hassles or neutral life events) exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole and are more optimistic about the upcoming week. Those who write gratitude lists are more likely to make significant progress toward achieving important personal goals.

Grateful people also tend to have more optimism in general, which has been proven in many studies to boost the immune system and improve outcomes for people with compromised health.

Martin Seligman, PhD, a psychologist who in 1998 launched the field of positive psychology, considers gratitude an important character strength. He and other positive psychology researchers see such strengths – which also include qualities like integrity, perseverance, kindness and forgiveness – as virtues that enable people to thrive.

If dwelling on negative events from your past keeps you from being happy, Seligman says, gratitude and forgiveness can help. “Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past and overemphasis of the bad ones are the two culprits that undermine serenity, contentment and satisfaction,” he writes. “Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by, and rewriting history by forgiveness loosens the power of the bad events to embitter (and actually can transform bad memories into good ones).”

Gratitude enhances satisfaction and counters the negative effects of greed, jealousy, taking things for granted and feeling entitled.

Gratitude itself, it turns out, is something to be thankful for. The more you practice it, the better you feel.

Those around you feel better, too. Emmons and McCullough note that gratitude encourages a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness. In other words, one expression of gratitude encourages another. They found that people who are grateful are more likely to feel loved.

Gratitude also appears to encourage generosity, meaning that when we feel grateful for what we have, we may be more likely to share freely with others – and also to inspire and receive kindnesses from others. According to M. J. Ryan, author, the interplay of gratitude and generosity starts an ever-expanding circle of open-heartedness.

“It doesn’t matter where you enter the circle – in gratitude or with generosity,” she writes in The Giving Heart: Unlocking the Transformative Power of Generosity in Your Life.

The more you experience one, the more the other enhances your life as well. You feel truly grateful, and from that fullness you offer something to someone else – an encouraging word or a helping hand. In return, you receive love, the feeling of connection, and a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that continues to fuel your gratitude for the gifts of life you have received.”

So go ahead, be grateful. You’ll feel healthier, and more positive – and so will those around you.