The good life. It’s yours if you think it.
It really is that simple. Your mind is connected to your physiology, and research shows that shifting your mindset to the positive can lead to a happier, healthier life. All you have to do is show a little gratitude.
“Gratitude is the habit of telling the mind to find things that are working in your life,” says Mitra Manesh, a mindfulness educator and coach. “It is a choice that can bring you the best well-being available to your body.”
Simple? Yes. Easy? Hardly. Practicing gratitude can be at odds with deeply ingrained tendencies to focus on things that pose a potential threat. It's the hair-trigger warning system that kept our ancestors off the menu. But most modern people still live in a state of survival most of the time, and gratitude is not accessible when living under chronic stress, says Manesh. "The last thing your mind asks when you're running for your life is, "What's good?"
This inherent negativity bias leads us to constantly focus on things that are not going well — whether you're lost in a jungle or dining at a restaurant — and can blind us to all that is good.
Studies have found that a gratitude practice can help counteract the effects of our negative nature and rewire the brain to intentionally look at what is right. The key is doing it with intentionality and awareness. Meaning, force your mind to halt its automatic thinking.
Stop Stressing and Serve Up Gratitude: The Mind-Body Benefits
While you might not be able to remove sources of daily stressors, you can control the internal tension you feel in response to them and halt the thought spiral that leads to negative self-talk.
Dr. Leah Johansen, MD, a Lifeforce Physician, notes that thoughts of judgment and shame are correlated to elevated C-reactive protein, a biomarker that signals inflammation in the body. High levels are connected to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. “It's such a high correlate, there's no mystery anymore,” she says.
“People underappreciate the power of their mind, but your thoughts have more power over your health than you know,” says Dr. Johansen. Activities like meditation and gratitude rewire the brain and your pathology on a physical level to the point of reversing diseases such as prediabetes and hormonal imbalances.
When you commit to gratitude at a deep level, Manesh says you no longer have illusionary fears, and your mind’s no longer making everything a problem. Suddenly, you can focus on what your body is telling you it needs, and you’ll catch real problems sooner because they’re no longer lost in the noise.
By consistently identifying and challenging negative thoughts and shifting the mindset towards more positive thinking, you’ll notice several mental and physical benefits roll in:
1. Less stress. A low-stress life is a longer and better one. Studies show that when practicing gratitude, the brain releases chemicals that chill you out by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system — the part that helps you relax.
2. Brighter outlook. Studies show that focusing on the positive things in your life or writing thank-you letters can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve general satisfaction with daily life.
3. Better sleep. A pre-sleep gratitude practice leads to better sleep quality and duration.
5. Flourishing relationships. Researchers have shown that when you practice gratitude, your body releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel more connected to others. And a strong support network results in a longer and healthier life.
6. Healthier habits. Studies have shown that grateful people eat healthy, move their bodies more, and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
7. Epigenetic shifts. “Between our genes and our environmental experiences, there exists an element called epigenetics,” says Manesh. “It’s the power to activate or deactivate the unhealthy genes in your body, like a volume knob on a radio. You can make them quiet or loud by your choices.”
“The mind is more powerful than we think,” adds Dr. Johansen, who notes that your choices and actions have more influence on the expression of your genes than any genetic predisposition. “Your genetic risk of actually causing disease is actually very low compared to what the epigenetic shift is, meaning that you have more influence on the expression of your gene than you do having a genetic disease that creates problems.”
Making the Shift: How to Start a Gratitude Practice
Practicing gratitude could be as simple as starting and finishing the day by thinking about things you’re grateful for. Journaling may be the most potent gratitude practice because of the way writing imprints on neural processes. But the best practice is the one you will stick with.
“Writing is more effective and less practical, so do your best,” says Manesh. “If you can write it, great, but you can practice gratitude by waking up, opening your eyes, and thinking, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Try this 21-day practice from Manesh, designed to turn gratitude into a habit because the benefits unfold through long-term actions.
In the morning: As soon as you wake up and are aware but still in a dream-like state…
Bring your awareness to where your attention is. You want to catch your mind before it immediately goes to what’s wrong with the day. What you’re doing is stopping your frightened survivalist mind from looking for trouble and telling it that you’re in charge.
Ask yourself: What’s right and good about anything or anybody at this moment? Start small by expressing gratitude for things like your pillow. Your body treats gratitude the same whether you’re thankful for a useless object or the love of your life.
Ask your mind to continue to look for what’s right throughout the day. Remember that the energy behind your intention is more important than the wording. As in, mean it.
Throughout the day: Whenever you don’t feel well or balanced…
Ask yourself: What do I believe is wrong with this moment? Then, question if it’s an actual danger.
Divide dangers into small, medium, and large buckets.
Let go of small dangers, decide if the medium ones are worthy of your energy, and attend to the large dangers. Most of the time, there are very few actual large dangers.
At bedtime: Just before closing your eyes for sleep…
Bring your awareness to where your attention is. Remind your mind that you’re not looking for what went wrong today.
Ask yourself: What’s right and good about anything or anybody at this moment? Again, it's irrelevant what you are grateful for. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same stuff from the morning or yesterday. What matters is your disposition.
How will you know that your gratitude practice is working? “You will be happier and lighter,” says Manesh. “Life will have a sense of ease, like, you’ll immediately find a parking space and always travel in the right direction with no rush. Things will come easier, and you'll find yourself doing that famous statement: Stopping and smelling the roses. That doesn't mean you'll be happy ever after. But it means that experience is now more available to you. Your own experience of yourself is the best evidence for it working.”
Looking for more ways to level up your health and longevity? A Lifeforce Membership gives you access to biomarker testing (including a full hormone panel) every three months, your own personalized health plan from a Lifeforce clinician, and one-on-one health coaching to help you reach your goals. Learn more here.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Mary Stratos, PA-C, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner