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Practising gratitude improves health, happiness by up to 25%

According to new research, there's never been a better time to express your thanks. I can attest to this from personal experience, writes Jerome Doraisamy.

About two and a half years ago, I was feeling particularly glum and downtrodden. I was struggling with my vocational direction, constantly anxious, unable to sleep, and ultimately not quite feeling myself.

And while it was not quite a regression to the debilitating, crippling depression I once suffered, the similarities were clear enough to make me fear a return to the dark days. 

I confided in a close friend, Pat McCabe, whom I've known since school days. He's also a former professional rugby player, who played for the Australian Wallabies until his third broken neck forced him into immediate retirement. 

And while Pat was lucky to be able to walk away from the game – literally and metaphorically – and now works as a lawyer and has a loving wife and beautiful twin babies, the aftermath of his retirement was a trying period for him. 

My aforementioned struggles came about a year after Pat had retired. I called him and asked how he got through that period, and his response was illuminating for me. 

He said he started keeping a notebook on his bedside table, and every night before going to sleep, he would write down three things that had happened that day that he was grateful for. It could have been anything, from getting a text message from a friend or enjoying a few minutes in the sunshine. The purpose of jotting those things down, he said, was to remind himself of all the good things that were happening in his life and put a smile on his face before he turned off the light and closed his eyes. 

At first, I thought it sounded a bit corny. And, definitely contrived. But, I trusted my friend's judgment, and decided to give it a go. 

I had no idea the positive impact it would have. 

My personality is such that I am incredibly competitive, perfectionistic and naturally pessimistic. If 99 out of 100 things go right, I am more likely to focus on the one thing that went wrong. I set unreasonably high standards for myself and tend to over-analyse even the most trivial of scenarios. 

Getting into a routine whereby I would jot down three points every night before bed served as a forced reminder of the good things in my life, at a time when I needed to know that all hope was not lost, my prospects were still good and I was not – as I sometimes felt – a complete failure.

Practising gratitude is not a magic solution to mental ailments (nor is anything else, for that matter). But it contributed substantially to my working through that difficult period in which I was struggling to see the good in life. Those forced reminders played into my idiosyncratic personality traits perfectly. 

There are many ways to do it, as well: instead of keeping a notebook on your bedside table, you can carry one around with you in your bag each day, or – as some people like to do – write down all the good things that happen on scraps of paper, seal those scraps of paper in a jar, and then at monthly intervals, read through all the good things that have happened to you over that recent period. 

The benefits of expressing gratitude are also borne out by experts. According to psychologist and author Robert Emmons, practising gratitude by methods such as journaling can make you more successful, healthier and increase your happiness by up to 25 per cent.

Eloise King, a gratitude expert and founder of The Self-Love Project, said poor mental health is one of the largest issues facing our society today, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any given year. 

"Research shows a clear link between physical and mental health. As a collective we've never been wealthier, yet we've also never been sicker," she said. 

"As a result, more people are looking for ways to feel better within themselves and about their lives and turning to positive psychology techniques such as gratitude journaling which has been proven to improve mental and physical wellbeing." 

Practising gratitude is an ancient notion which all religious traditions have encouraged since their inception, she argued, and now scientific, agnostic and atheist communities are seeing the benefits too.

"Expressing gratitude increases oxytocins (the love molecule) and creates stronger connections and bonds. Journaling also has a long history of being used for greater clarity and wellbeing, and so combining the two daily is a simple recipe for better health, improved happiness, stronger relationships, a competitive edge at work and greater overall wellbeing."

The benefits of gratitude journaling, Ms King said, are: 

•    Increased happiness and enhanced mental health;
•    Stronger immune system;
•    Decreased anxiety and increased sense of calm;
•    Improved emotional intelligence; 
•    Spiritual growth and integration; 
•    Improved ability to communicate with others; 
•    Better mental clarity and problem-solving skills; 
•    Increased creativity, work efficiency and elevated IQ; and
•    More effective capacity to deal with stress and intrusive thoughts. 

You may be like me and think, at least initially, that practising gratitude is a bit lame. But if I can push through and discover the multitude of benefits, anybody can. Give it a try – it takes little to no time out of your day, and the benefits are disproportionately positive. 

Jerome Doraisamy is a journalist at Wellness Daily and its sister title, Lawyers Weekly.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain