Family Life: Be grateful; you just might age better, science says

Family Life: Be grateful; you just might age better, science says

By CHELSEY BYERS GERSTENECKER

Many times throughout my life, I have heard and learned about being grateful. It started when I was young. It was a value that my parents hoped to teach me. "Eat your peas," my parents would say, and "be grateful you have food to eat, there are starving kids in other parts of the world."

I did not know there were hungry kids in my own hometown. I am not sure as I child I understood to be grateful for my greens and vegetables, but I was grateful that I was able to go on summer vacations. My best friend rarely went anywhere.

Then in the 1990s, I remember Oprah promoting a book called "Simple Abundance" and the "Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude." Oprah believed in keeping a gratitude journal. She reported that she writes down five things each day that she was grateful for in order to maintain an awareness of her blessings.

I really loved that idea, but I never bought the book because I was a poor college student and then a poor just-out-of-college young adult. What I did do is start a little notebook where I could write down things for which I was grateful. It does not take much money, just a little time and effort. However, somewhere in the hustle of life, I lost this routine.

This past year, this act of being grateful and showing gratitude has really re-emerged and presented itself to me in multiple ways. First, it came to me while doing some research on contributors toward healthy aging. Then, this "attitude of gratitude" was shared with me during a leadership-development session as a skill held by top leaders. Finally, it came a third time at the end of the year as I was researching something for our family to do this coming year.

Therefore, as we start this 2018, we, as a family, are going to each write down something we are grateful for each week and place it in a container. On New Year's Eve, we will all get to read and reminisce about all of the wonderful things we were thankful for throughout the year.

So, to kick this year off, I wanted to share with you the importance of living life with an "attitude of gratitude," because it will not only help you in your current mood; research shows that it will also help you age well. According to multiple studies, the practice of gratitude can lead to lasting physical and psychological effects such as improved immune function; better heart health, including lower blood pressure;  more restful and efficient sleep; diminished stress and anxiety; decreased depression; greater optimism and happiness; increased overall well-being; strengthened self-esteem; more openness to forgiveness; and better self-care.

When we focus on the positive, it engages our parasympathetic nervous system — the calming part that has protective benefits leading to decreased cortisol levels and increased oxytocin, which puts us in a better mood.

In order to use the power of the positive, get in the routine or habit of asking yourself some daily questions to help acknowledge the good in your life.

— How was I kind today? Who was kind to me?

— What have I received today? What have I given to others today?

— What was a simple joy I experience?

— What was unexpected in a good way?

— What was good?

— Who am I thankful or grateful for?

"How do I get in on this?" you may ask. Simply acknowledge the good and appreciate the good. It is a state of mind, like being positive. It can transform you, but it may require a little practice until it becomes routine or second nature. There are multiple ways to bring this habit into your life. Some find it helpful to utilize tools. Here are a couple of suggestions:

— Keep a journal or notebook and each day write down three to five things for which you are grateful.

— Send thank-you cards to those that you are grateful for on a regular basis.

— Meditate or focus on being mindful of your gratitude daily.

— Pray or give thanks daily.

"Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough," says Oprah Winfrey.

Gratitude is a great practice for all ages.

To read more family-life topics, visit the statewide family-life blog, 'Family Files,' at go.illinois.edu/familyfiles. For information on family-life-related topics and programs, visit our local University of Illinois Extension website at web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/ or contact Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker at 217-333-7672 or clbyers@illinois.edu.

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