Irritable? Got A Case Of The Blahs?

Gratitude can turn it around in short order

Gratitude: From the Latin gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness depending on the context. 

What It Does

Gratitude works in at least two ways. It shifts negative thoughts to positive thoughts by recognizing that something in life is good. And because the specific good we think about is external to us, it takes us out of ourselves. The trick to transforming the thought or feeling that “Things are really screwed up” into “All is well; it’ll get better” is to let your song gratitude for a specific good expand into a chorus of things you’re grateful for. And sustain it.

The Science

In Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness, psychologist Rick Hanson advises to “Grow the good that lasts in your brain and your life.” In one study, he found that focusing on an experience for 20 seconds is long enough to create “positive structural changes in the brain.” And that gratitude in particular, “gives space for positive thoughts and experiences to expand as if we’re re-experiencing them.” The structural changes he sites include the stimulation of the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure.

A white paper entitled  The Science of Gratitude, prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, reported in 2018 that gratitude has deep roots in our evolutionary history. One study reported that the desire to repay generosity suggests that gratitude “may have evolved as a mechanism to drive reciprocal altruism, thereby turning strangers into friends and allies who are more likely to help one another.” Other studies report that gratitude arose as a mechanism for social adaptation, that specific genes could underlie the experience of gratitude, and that parenting, prayer and a host of other social and cultural factors are linked to gratitude.

Individual Benefits

The paper cited above associated gratitude with better physical and psychological health, increased happiness, life satisfaction, decreased materialism and less suffering from burnout. “More grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation.” “Heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterward.” Other studies found that “more grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events.”

Children can benefit as well. “Gratitude journaling in the classroom improved students’ mood and a curriculum designed to help students appreciate the benefits they have gained from others successfully taught children to think more gratefully and to exhibit more grateful behavior.” And  adolescents who demonstrated gratitude “are more interested and satisfied with their school lives, are more kind and helpful, and are more socially integrated.”

Social Benefits

The report also indicated that “Gratitude inspires people to be more generous, kind, and helpful or prosocial. “It strengthens relationships, including romantic relationships, and may improve the climate in workplaces. More grateful people are more helpful and generous. It’s important in forming and maintaining social relationships.”

Researchers referred to the “find, remind and bind” function of gratitude. “By attuning people to the thoughtfulness of others, gratitude helps them ‘find’ or identify people who are good candidates for quality future relationships; it also helps ‘remind’ people of the goodness of their existing relationships; and it ‘binds’ them to their partners and friends by making them feel appreciated, encouraging them to engage in behaviors that will help prolong their relationships.”

The Practice 

Several studies observed that keeping a gratitude journal or writing a letter of gratitude can increase one’s happiness and overall positive mood. Especially important in writing is the language we use. In The Science Of Gratitude: How It Affects Your Brain And How You Can Use It To Create A Better Life, Anna Powers reported a double-blind study where 300 participants wrote letters of gratitude for three weeks straight. “What really made a difference in mental health improvement was not the abundance of positive words, but rather a lack of negative ones! Thus, indicating that gratitude shifts our frame of mind to a positive state of being and allows us to have a better psychological experience despite what we may be going through externally.”

Psychology professor and gratitude researcher at UC Davis, Dr. Robert Emmons, recommends two key components in practicing gratitude—“Affirm the good things we’ve received, and acknowledge the role people played in providing goodness in our lives.” 

Mindful: Healthy Mind, Healthy Life is a website that describes ten ways to practice gratitude.  Among them, are making a vow to do so. “Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed.” Use visual reminders. “Because the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. And think outside the box. Look for little things, situations and circumstances, that elicit joy or appreciation.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them. — John F. Kennedy


Frequently, I find that thoughts of gratitude are triggered by encountering someone in real life or on television who can’t do some of the things I take for granted—like hearing and walking. Also, people who don’t have what I consider a necessary part of everyday living—like showering in water that’s as pure as what we drink, having a warm bed to sleep in, refrigeration, a washer and dryer, telephone and computer… Oh my!   

My favorite comment on gratitude comes from a dear friend who passed away a few years ago. A comment in his book, The Mystical Sense of the Gospels: A Handbook for Contemplatives, speaks to gratitude’s highest vibration.  


There is a gratitude that is generic, nonspecific, not tied down to any single benefit or  blessing. It is just a generalized welling up of love, a thanks-for-everything, unspecified gratitude. It gives wings to the soul, and it begins to partake of the boundlessness of God. It elevates the spirit above all that is finite and all but fuses with or dissolves into God. 

James M. Somerville





Photography Monographs (In each book the pages can be turned)


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