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The Healing Power of Gratitude

When the pandemic struck in India, we (Indians) jostled helplessly for oxygen cylinders for our loved ones as oxygen levels dangerously plummeted in cases with the new infection. Despite trying everything, we could not get oxygen to save my uncle. But there wasn’t any time to mourn. There were thousands who were witnessing their loved ones struggle and gasp for air.

I volunteer with the Art of Living. During those macabre months of summer as covid-19 infections peaked and patients battled cytokine storms, we volunteers got down to doing what needed to be done—organizing medical aid, life-saving equipment, and food on a war footing. We organized groups on social media to share mission critical information, to save time and lives.

As months passed and the rigor grew less intense, the grief began to set in—the grief of losing a loved one to something so indeterminate. But even as I grieved along with my family, something strange started happening.

Families of strangers started getting back to our team with heartfelt letters of gratitude, some sent us home-cooked goodies, and others sent flowers. We were awash with blessings and the gratitude of people whose family members survived thanks to timely medical help. And even though none of this could bring back my uncle, I found healing in these prayers and unexpected showers of blessings. I felt only too grateful for the unsuspecting ways of nature in which it cared for a wounded, grieving heart like mine.

The last year and a half has been unimaginable for many, with the unprecedented scale of loss and helplessness that humanity has been witness to. In such situations, one may very well find the idea of being grateful to be a little extraneous. When we are struck by a tragedy, it can be quite difficult to look at what we have and ‘count our blessings,’ but scientists say gratitude can help start the process of healing, even at our emotional worst. Once we look at it deeply, we find that gratitude can coexist with real feelings of grief, sadness, anger, anxiety, and a sense of loss.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is a sense of thankfulness for something that we have received unexpectedly and out of turn—in other words, not something we earned or deserved. It is an acknowledgment of life’s millions of blessings that we are drenched in at any given moment, in a context that is larger than us or our capacities. Gratitude is always in relation to something we have received from someone else, either a friend, stranger, loved one, or some form of super power, that many may address as God or the Divine or cosmic consciousness.

But what are the perks of being grateful, one may ask. Can it heal cancer? Can it remove poverty from the earth? Can it help humanity get rid of suffering? Can it…save a life?

Maybe gratitude will not eliminate poverty in a day, but it can inspire action in that direction. But the point of nurturing gratefulness in life is quite different, and its result is very subtle. Gratitude is said to have an impact on our happiness. Researchers say it is one of the top five predictors of happiness. In other words, the more grateful you are, the happier you are likely to be in life.

What does science say about the healing powers of gratitude?

Studies show that people who say thanks often are happier, have lower blood pressure levels, sleep better, show growth and improvement in their relationships, are better able to fight depression, and are less impacted by pain. According to Canadian researchers, the positive effects of gratitude last long. The study showed, people who wrote thank-you notes, or performed acts of kindness for only six weeks reported better mental health, less physical pain, more energy, and got more done every day. Another study in Sweden, showed people within the ages of 77 and 90, who were grateful, were less likely to be scared of becoming physically and mentally weak.

Going by a 2010 meta-review, researchers found, people who were more grateful were also extroverted, more open, hard-working, and less neurotic. They were likely to experience less depression and greater subjective well-being, which includes high positive affect (mood), low negative affect, and high satisfaction with life. High trait gratitude is also associated with more positive social relationships and better physical health, especially in regards to stress and sleep.’

Similarly, a meta-analysis of intervention studies published in 2017 found that, subjects who underwent gratitude interventions, ‘fared better on a number of outcomes. They saw “evident differences” for well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, grateful mood, grateful disposition, positive affect, depression, optimism, and quality of relationships.’

Gratitude is an invitation to draw in more.

On a more spiritual level, gratitude helps to bring in more of what you are grateful for-a shared truth that finds a mention in all religious and spiritual traditions, and more recently has found a way in self-help works focused on manifesting intentions.

Global spiritual master, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar explains the spiritual mechanism of how gratitude helps you thrive.

“Whatever seed you sow, that will grow. If the seed is one of lack, then lack is what grows. Today you feel you lack this, and tomorrow you will feel some other lack, and then in a year, even if all these things are provided, still you will feel some lack. Observe carefully and see what you have been given. Then you become grateful. In gratefulness, everything that supports life grows.” He further adds, “Feel grateful for your very existence, for our very body, all that we have, and all the love that we have received. And this gratefulness will bring you a flood of prosperity, joy, and happiness.”

Deeper Relationships

Gratitude helps you kindle deeper and more satisfying relationships because when you are coming from the space of gratitude and appreciation for what you have, you are essentially uplifting the other with that energy. According to studies, when people express gratitude to partners often, the feeling of gratitude and appreciation is returned, and this give-and-take strengthens the bond, sense of satisfaction and commitment among the partners. Especially, unexpected kindness or gratitude makes us want to do more for others.

Obstacles to Feeling Grateful

Counting our blessings can be difficult. We can often overlook or forget what we have, when some part of what we really really want is missing from our lives. And thanks to the pace of our lives and the chase for these things that we ‘really really want’, we do not pay attention to the gifts we have.

It requires us to be present. To be grateful you need to be present to the moment, and to yourself in all your naturalness and vulnerability. To be grateful means to be able to feel everything-the good, bad and the ugly that is in and around us. Being grateful requires us to access that finer aspect of our human existence that we often tend to shut off, to protect ourselves from fragility and hurt.

Self-criticism and skepticism. To be vulnerable means we open ourselves to all kinds of emotional possibilities. When we receive something after praying for too long, we may struggle to believe it. We may even question it. As Sri Sri says, “We tend to doubt that which is positive.” And so we are more likely to doubt our blessings than our misfortunes. This may keep us from feeling grateful about the myriad gifts that we have, and things that we have going for us. Sometimes when you are feeling grateful, you may also remember that not everyone has the blessing that you have, and that could trigger a negative emotion, adding guilt or shame to this pure sense of gratitude.

How can you be more grateful?

Silence the skeptic mind. You will notice that when your prana or life energy is low, your mind reels in doubts, skepticism, and clouds of negativity. You may have thoughts of being undeserving or that the good things don’t last or that someone is being nice to you to extract something out of you. It is difficult to feel grateful in such a state of mind. But once you raise your life force with the help of spiritual practices and breath work, you will see that the mind automatically becomes grateful, clear and happy.

A calm and meditative mind is an incredibly powerful source of prana or life energy. Practicing meditation helps improve your present moment awareness, makes your mind joyous, helps you take a qualitative pause and opens up your heart to feel more gratitude.

Here’s a beautiful, guided gratitude meditation in the soft and soothing voice of Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for you to embark on this journey.

Act in gratitude. As they say-fake it till you make it. At first, you may need to consciously remind yourself of things you are grateful for every day. But overtime the practice of gratitude becomes self-rewarding. Try maintaining a gratitude journal to scribble about things you were grateful for during the day, or keep a special item—say a watch or pebble or a cross—on you. Every time you take it out, you could remind yourself of one thing/person/situation that you are grateful for in your life.

The more you put yourself in situations where you are expressing gratitude, the more reasons you are likely to have, to be grateful for in life.

Take a simple example. When you thank a guy at the store next to the gas station for keeping the shop open late at night, it will be hard to miss the instant spark of joy/warm awkwardness in their eyes. And that smile is likely to uplift your state of mind and heart in return.

Kindness is the light we need in these grim times, and kindness nourishes gratitude.