Hearts—like doors—will open with ease
With very little keys,
And don’t forget that two of these
Are “I thank you” and “If you please.”

I still recall the singsong-way with which my mother recited these words. Like any good parent, she was trying to instill a sense of gratitude in her children. With three children of my own, I know firsthand that saying “thank you” is not something we are born doing; it something learned—and something experienced.

We are taught from an early age that manners—like saying thank you—are important, but actually being thankful is more important than just making a good first impression. New research shows that an attitude of gratitude affects both your mental and physical health. Even more importantly, gratitude directly affects your spiritual health. 

But what is gratitude? Gratitude is a tricky thing to pin down. Is it an emotion? A feeling? Surely, gratitude is more than the utterance of two words: thank you. Derived from the Latin word gratus (meaning grateful or pleasing), gratitude is a state of appreciation and thankfulness, and it starts in your heart.

Physical Health

Even though gratitude starts in your heart as a feeling of immense thankfulness, it extends into every aspect of your body—even your physical body.

A few years ago, I found myself in between a rock and a hard place: our family car was broken and the cost to repair the transmission was more than the car was worth. We needed a car so my husband could drive to work, but the burden of suddenly purchasing another car was an unexpected expense. When my mother stepped into gift us a down payment, I felt incredible gratitude, and as I uttered my 100th “thank you,” I literally felt the tension and stress leave my body.

Current research published in Personality and Individual Differences explains that what I felt was the physical effects of gratitude. In fact, gratitude can: 

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Improve immune function
  • Lower cortisol levels by 23% 
  • Improve sleep quality by 10% 
  • Lower blood sugar levels by 13% 

Mental Health

When your blood pressure regulates and sleep quality improves, your mental health immediately responds. Normal blood pressure and better sleep help reduce the stress hormone (cortisol) in your body.

Further, cultivating an attitude of gratitude can reduce your risk of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse disorders. According to an article published in Psychological Assessment, gratitude is linked with a reduced lifetime risk of suicide.

How does gratitude affect your mental health so profoundly? According to Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, gratitude “blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness. […] It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.”

The takeaway: Research published in Personality and Individual Differences explains that the physical and mental benefits of gratitude have a direct and positive result on your quality of life.

Spiritual Health

Not only does a grateful heart boost your physical and mental health, but gratitude is a path to receive God’s grace, and Scripture shows us how. 

  • Gratitude strengthens your faith. Recall the miracle of Jesus healing the lepers: “When he saw he was healed, he came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17: 15-16). Jesus acknowledged the importance of the gratitude of the Samaritan leper, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” 
  • Gratitude leads to other spiritual disciplines. Gratitude plays a pivotal role in the growth of your own faith: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise; give thanks to Him and praise His name” (Psalm 100:4). The Samaritan leper gave thanks for healing, but the Psalmist instructs to give thanks for God Himself. This leads to a deeper relationship with God—one that we see God as the giver of all good things, and for that we should be thankful for the things as well as him.
  • Gratitude fosters humility. When we thank God for something, we are acknowledging that these things were given freely to us; we did not earn any of it. When we are thankful for gifts, we foster humility, as well as the virtue of temperance, in our hearts.
  • Gratitude opens you up to receive more graces. When you think of grace as “unmerited favor,” it’s easy to see how living a grateful life allows you to receive more of God’s grace.

Shifting to a Grateful Mindset

Even when we talk about gratitude, we use language that reflects its “being” nature. We don’t do gratitude, we are grateful. Thankfully, there are many ways we can foster a grateful mindset so that we can become more grateful. 

  • Say thank you with reckless abandon; say the words when your waiter refills your water, say thank you when someone holds open a door, presses the elevator button, bags your groceries, hands back your credit card, or lets you have the right-of-way in an interaction. Say thank you when your spouse makes the bed, when your children give you a hug, and on and on. 
  • Keep a diary and log every single thing for which you are grateful. 
  • Ask your children to name one thing they are grateful for during dinner each night.
  • Practice gratitude-building activities like letter writing. 
  • Practice spiritual detachment so you do not become too attached to material goods.

When you reflect on the qualities of gratitude and how it profoundly affects your mental, physical, and spiritual health, it’s easy to understand how our hearts open so easily in the presence of gratitude—no physical keys necessary.