Cultivating Gratitude and Its Surprising Health Benefits

"Practicing gratitude is like exercising."

“Practicing gratitude is like exercising,” says Robert Emmons. Humans are not intrinsically grateful beings and it takes work to overcome what psychologists call a “negativity bias.”

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, there is no better time to think about thankfulness and its health benefits. Most folks believe expressing gratitude is important and we love when people express their gratitude to us.  It’s probably no surprise then, that a life of gratitude carries a number of benefits that go beyond what you might expect.  With this in mind, let’s look into what it actually means to be thankful and how you will benefit because of it.

Thankfulness Means Gratitude

Gratitude is recognizing and valuing what you have received from another person–whether you know it or not, or whether you asked for it or not.  Awareness is a necessary part of gratitude.  Can you really appreciate something you’re unaware of?  Not really.  Second, gratitude requires appreciation.  Think of a time your parents did something for you that you didn’t appreciate in the moment but then learned to appreciate in retrospect.  Ouch!  Or, how about the time you asked someone to help you, but you failed to express your gratitude.  Ouch!  Ouch!  With these thoughts in mind we discover we are thankful far less often than we should be.

Gratitude Takes Work

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, says that “practicing gratitude is like exercising,” (Painter, 2008).  Humans are not intrinsically grateful beings, and it takes work to overcome what psychologists call a “negativity bias” (meaning the natural inclination to protect yourself from danger, or moving into a survival mode).  Human experience tells us that what we don’t use, we lose.  Gratitude requires intentionality; regularly putting ourselves in a place of awareness so that we can truly appreciate what we have been given. This is a very important first step.

Benefits Of Choosing Gratitude?

Powerful things happen in our brains when we choose to think and focus on good things.  When we increase our awareness of the things that have been done for us it causes our brains to release dopamine–a neurotransmitter that affects our mood.  M. Conley (2011) notes that “Feeling thankful for things that have happened acts as a ‘mental movie.’  The brain releases dopamine, which, in turn, has a positive effect on mood and emotional well-being.”  And that’s just the start.  Check out some of these other perks of gratitude:

  • “People with high blood pressure not only lower their blood pressure, but feel less hostile and are more likely to quit smoking and lose weight when they practice gratitude.” (Painter, 2008)
  • “Those who maintain a thankful attitude through life appear to have lower risks of several disorders, including depression, phobias, bulimia and alcoholism.” (Painter, 2008)
  • “Taking the time to focus on the positive gestures your partner makes can help you feel more connected and satisfied in your relationship.” (Smith, 2011)
  • In a study at the University of Manchester in England “those who felt more grateful also reported more positive thoughts and feelings, which allowed them to fall asleep faster and improved their overall quality of sleep.” (Smith, 2011)
  • Exercising gratitude can affect multiple brain and body systems: “mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine), reproductive hormones (testerone), social bonding hormones (oxytocin), cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine), inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines), stress hormones (cortisol), cardiac and EEG rhythms, blood pressure and blood sugar.” (Conley, 2011)

Dr P. Murali Doraiswamy, of Duke University Medical Center, said, “If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.”  (Conley, 2011).

How Can I Cultivate Gratitude In My Classroom?

Thankfully, we can find a lot of great ideas with relatively little effort.  Here are just a few:

  1. In November, have your students write three thank you notes to people they have not properly thanked before.  Or you could make this a yearlong activity and have your students write one or two thank you notes each month.
  2. Take five minutes each school day in November and have your students write about something they are thankful for and how it has affected them.  You can give them a prompt or have your students come up with one of their own.
  3. Have each student prepare a small, informal presentation about someone who has done something for them.  What impact did that person have on their life?  Do one or two presentations each day.

(I am a strong believer that if you teach your children to cultivate gratitude it will have a profound effect upon you!)

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any great ideas on cultivating gratitude in your class room and/or your own life?


Conley, M. (2011, November 23). Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body. USA Today. Retrieved from

Harvard Medical School. (2011). In Praise of Gratitude. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 28(5), 1-2.

Painter, K. (2008, November 24). Your Health: Giving thanks can make you healthier, happier. USA Today. Retrieved from

Smith, J. (2011, December 20). 5 Ways Gratitude is Good for Your Health. Shape Magazine. Retrieved from

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