Gratitude is a fundamental component of most spiritual paths, and a growing body of research suggests that it has important health implications, too, including better sleep, fewer physical ailments, and a greater ability to cope with stressful situations.
"Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms," says Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis, psychology professor who has helped champion the study of gratitude as a factor in mental and physical health.
A series of studies he conducted in 2003 found that people who kept weekly written records of gratitude slept longer, exercised more frequently, had fewer health complaints, and generally felt better about their lives when compared with those who were asked to record only their complaints. In another study, he found that students who wrote in gratitude journals felt more satisfied with their lives and their school experience.
Practicing conscious gratitude has also been linked with positive mental health. Todd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology at Virginia's George Mason University, found that when veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder kept gratitude journals, they experienced a greater sense of overall well-being in their lives. "There are two parts of being grateful," Kashdan says. "One is recognizing that someone benefited in some way, then mindfully seeing the connection to yourself. You have to really be in the present to see what's happening in your life, what's causing things to happen, and how you fit into things bigger than yourself."
A gratitude practice is a natural companion to yoga, which "offers numerous opportunities to reflect on all there is in one's life to be grateful for," says Emmons. To begin consciously cultivating gratitude, try considering what life would be like without a pleasure you now enjoy, or think about who you are grateful for. A daily gratitude journal can help you be more mindful of these things in your life. But your gratitude practice doesn't have to be scripted: Simply taking time on a regular basis to mentally note your blessings is a big step in the right direction.