Have you ever experienced the feeling of thankfulness just washing over you? Or the feeling of being so full of gratitude that it seemed like you could not contain it all? I absolutely love those feelings, and they come to me increasingly as I get older and wiser. They usually come when I am out in nature or when I finally gain some understanding about how life works or when I think about the people in my life.
They came after the birth of my children and the night I sat up staring at my sleeping sixteen year- old daughter after she had been in what could have been a horrible car accident. Interestingly enough, even though acquiring something material can make me happy, it has never prompted that overwhelming gratitude that fills my heart.
Gratitude lists or journals are often recommended to help keep our focus on the positive things in our lives, and I can’t argue with that. They are reported to make people more optimistic, have fewer physical complaints, and experience more energy, enthusiasm, alertness, and determination.
When we experience the feelings of appreciation, the parasympathetic nervous system – the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system – is activated. This can have a protective effect on the heart when it happens regularly.
Drs. Blair and Rita Justice say that “there is evidence that when we practice bringing attention to what we appreciate in our lives more positive emotions emerge, leading to beneficial alterations in heart rate variability. This may not only relieve hypertension, but reduce the risk of sudden death from coronary artery disease.
The more we pause to appreciate and show caring and compassion, the more order and coherence we experience internally. When our hearts are in an “internal coherence state”, studies suggest that we enjoy the capacity to be peaceful and calm, yet retain the ability to respond appropriately to stressful circumstances.”
Gratitude, along with wonder and awe, also triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, our internal feel-good chemicals. To me, a grateful person also seems to radiate a certain kind of energy that makes you feel good to be in their presence.
Keeping a gratitude journal (or even a daily mental list of things you are thankful for) seems like a great way to begin to make gratitude a way of life. I’m not sure it will be as effective though if we allow ourselves to be bombarded with negativity at the same time.
Personally, I do not want to hear complaining, criticism, or repeated negative media reports unless it serves a meaningful purpose or can lead to constructive action. I want to keep moving forward and bringing positive change to my life and my world. Gratitude can help to do that.
I have not kept a written gratitude journal, but I may start. I do know that when I have practiced making a mental list of things I am thankful for, it is hard to stop. It seems like there is always something that can be added to the list. After a while, I truly begin to experience that “internal coherence state” that Drs. Blair and Rita Justice wrote about.
To quote them again: “So when we look at snow-capped peaks or golden swatches of changing aspens or the Milky Way at night from high in the Rockies, our souls sing and our bodies are suffused with streams of dopamine and serotonin, the gifts of gratitude. In short, feeling gratitude and appreciation on a regular basis helps heal us at every level of our being.”