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Aging Well: Giving thanks — how gratitude helps us

A regular gratitude practice can help you feel happier and more positive in the long term.

This biweekly column is sponsored by The Mather in Tysons, Virginia, a forward-thinking Life Plan Community for those 62 and better.

November — a month containing both Veterans Day and Thanksgiving — is an ideal time to focus on feeling thankful. Concentrating on feelings of gratitude helps you feel happier and more positive in the short and long term.

“Multiple research studies have examined the benefits of a simple gratitude practice,” says Jennifer Smith, PhD, director of research at Mather Institute. The Institute is the research arm of Mather, a not-for-profit organization with three senior living communities that plans to open The Mather, a Life Plan Community for those 62 and better, in Tysons in 2024. The Institute is an award-winning resource for research and information about wellness, aging, trends in senior living and successful aging service innovations.

“Gratitude can help us feel more connected to others, increase positive emotions, and reduce negative thoughts,” says Dr. Smith. “And emphasizing the positive can create more positivity.”

The Gratitude-Happiness Link

Many studies have linked higher levels of gratitude to more happiness and satisfaction with life; in other words, it seems the more one feels gratitude, the happier and more satisfied one feels in general. One study that earned an Innovative Research on Aging Award from Mather Institute points out that older adults consistently report the highest levels of gratitude, compared to middle-age and younger adults. That link between level of gratitude and overall life satisfaction does not change with age, which means those over age 60 have a “happiness advantage” due to their high levels of gratitude.

The good news is that you can practice gratitude at any stage of life to actually improve your happiness, positivity and life satisfaction. One study showed that a regular habit such as daily journaling can enhance your long-term happiness by more than 10%.

Feelings of gratitude have also been shown to make us more resilient, boost optimism, increase self-esteem and reduce depressive symptoms. Focusing your attention on the positives rather than the negatives — which is what a gratitude practice does — can actually switch your outlook for the long term.

Physical Health Benefits

Feeling grateful also carries some physical benefits. It seems obvious that feeling optimistic and generally positive would impact one’s blood pressure, and research confirms this. A study of people with hypertension who were asked to practice gratitude at least once a week showed a “significant decrease” in their blood pressure. A similar study showed that practicing gratitude can improve quality of sleep.

Give Gratitude a Try

If you want to enjoy the benefits mentioned here, try to focus on feeling grateful at least three times a week, if not daily. Here are some examples of habits you might adopt:

  1. Gratitude journal: Whether you use a special notebook or scrap paper, take time every day or evening to list five things you feel grateful for. Ideally, you’ll save your lists so you can look back on them over time. Reviewing them will also increase your positive feelings.
  2. Thank-you notes: Write a note or email to someone who has had a positive impact on your life — whether it was a single action or a lifetime of support. Expressing your gratitude in writing gives you a chance to think more deeply about your thankfulness — and will make the recipient happy!
  3. Gratitude meditation: Take some quiet time to reflect on what you’re grateful for, then examine the feelings brought up when you identify those items, people or experiences. Focusing on what you value will bring moments of peace and joy.
  4. Share gratitude: Find a “gratitude buddy” — perhaps your spouse, child or a close friend — and take turns listing a few things you are grateful for. This adds extra depth to gratitude, as you can build off of each other’s comments.
  5. Take a gratitude walk: Take a stroll and look for positive things — from the walkability of your neighborhood to appealing sights and friendly people.

Whether you’re a natural pessimist or an optimist, try a regular gratitude practice. It will improve your outlook right away, and could result in lifelong benefits.

The Mather, projected to open in Tysons, VA, in 2024 for those 62 and better, is a forward-thinking Life Plan Community that defies expectations of what senior living is supposed to be.

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