For older adults, feelings of gratitude may help improve cognitive function, emotions and memory. (For Corewell Health Beat)

Practicing gratitude involves more than saying thank you.

Shifting the mind to gratitude can change a person’s outlook on life, Asha Shajahan, MD, medical director of community health at Corewell Health’s Beaumont Grosse Pointe Hospital and a physician at Corewell Health in Southeast Michigan, said.

“A practice of listing three things for which you are grateful every day can lead to improved mood and positive thoughts in just three weeks,” she said.

It may even improve your physical health.

“There are several studies that link gratitude to improved physical health by improving sleep quality, lowering blood pressure and increasing endorphins that improve mood,” Dr. Shajahan said.

Counteract negative self-talk

Faced with work stress and the other challenges of daily life, many people may struggle with negative thoughts.

“Gratitude is a simple exercise to destroy these negative thoughts that affect a person’s well-being,” Dr. Shajahan said.

“Anxiety and stress are linked to negative thinking patterns. Worrying, anxiety, complaining and focusing on the negative can amplify anxiety and increase stress.

“When you find yourself going down a negative spiral of thoughts, challenge yourself to find something to be grateful for,” she said.

Being grateful can help break the negative feedback loop often triggered by stress.

Having a grateful attitude can have a positive effect on overall well-being.

MRI evidence shows that gratitude can activate parts of the brain that impact memory and cognitive function and even reduce inflammation.

Gratitude and positive thoughts can release a chemical called dopamine, known as the feel-good chemical, in the brain.

For older adults, feelings of gratitude may help improve cognitive function, emotions and memory.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that gratitude activates the hippocampus and amygdala, which are the parts of the brain that regulate emotions and memory, Dr. Shajahan said.

“These areas of the brain require higher cognitive functioning, so exercising these brain muscles is a great way to keep the brain young,” she said.

Practicing gratitude

Practicing gratitude can include journaling or writing letters of thanks, whether delivered or not.

The practice calls for focusing more on what is good than bad, acknowledging positives in others and counting blessings. It can even involve the act of smiling, whether we feel happy or not.

“Take time to appreciate thankfulness in others as well as in yourself,” Dr. Shajahan said. “Acknowledge to yourself what you do well. Too often we can forget to reflect on what is good about ourselves.”

One of the most effective ways of expressing gratitude: Keep a gratitude journal.

“Writing can make those good things in our lives more tangible,” she said. “A gratitude journal can create accountability for taking that pause in our day to reflect and focus on positive things.”

Looking for some great gratitude journal prompts? Dr. Shajahan offered these suggestions:

  • What made you laugh uncontrollably in the last month?
  • Name a friend you appreciate who lives far away.
  • What was one simple kind act you witnessed a stranger perform today?
  • What are some objects in nature you are grateful for?
  • Recall three things that happened today that you enjoyed or are grateful for.
  • Recognize something your body did today that you are thankful for.
  • Write a letter to someone in your life who has had a positive impact on you. (There are benefits even if you don’t send the letter.)
  • Describe something you are looking forward to.
  • Write about the last time you deeply laughed or felt deep joy, excitement or wonder.
  • Who is someone who has done something to make your life easier recently, and how can you thank them?
  • What is something you’re grateful to have learned recently?
  • What skills, characteristics or abilities do you have that you are grateful for?
  • What is something your senses allow you to experience that you are grateful for? For example, listening to your favorite song, smelling fresh cut grass, feeling clean sheets. Imagine savoring that experience.
  • Describe something about your outside world—in nature, your city, etc.—that you are grateful for?