20 Dec 2017
Healing Through Gratitude
Could being grateful make us healthier?
In case you’re looking for another reason to be grateful, here’s one you may not have heard before. Gratitude doesn’t just make you a better person—it could also improve your mental and physical health.
Being thankful is one of the easiest ways to feel good. Gratitude helps people feel positive emotions, enjoy experiences, face up to challenges, and build solid relationships.
That much we already know.
But in the last few years, several clinical studies have gone beyond positive psychology and the relationship between gratitude and greater emotional well-being. They have shown that being grateful could decrease blood pressure, strengthen the body’s defenses against infection, and improve sleep quality.
A study conducted at the University of California, San Diego Medical Centers found that patients who felt grateful had better overall cardiac function and healthier heart rhythm.
“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” explained the study’s lead author Paul J. Mills, PhD, professor of family medicine and public health.
The study involved a group of women and men who had been diagnosed with asymptomatic heart failure (Stage B) at least three months prior. Stage B includes patients who have developed structural heart disease (for example, patients who suffer from heart damage due to a heart attack) but do not exhibit symptoms of heart failure, such as fatigue or difficulty breathing.
According to Mills, this stage is an important therapeutic window in which to stop the progression of the disease and improve quality of life, since Stage B patients have a high risk of progressing to symptomatic (Stage C) heart failure. Stage C is associated with a risk of death five times higher than Stage B.
The researchers measured gratitude and spiritual well-being via psychological tests, and compared those scores with the patients’ levels of depression, sleep quality, fatigue, self-efficacy (one’s belief in his or her ability to manage a situation), and inflammatory markers. They found a link between higher gratitude scores and better mood and sleep quality, increased self-efficacy, and less inflammation.
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons from the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough from the University of Miami, conducted various studies on gratitude. In one of them, they asked participants to write a couple of lines each week focusing on their personal lives.
One group was instructed to write about things that happened each week for which they were grateful. A second group was asked to write about things that bothered them or situations in which they experienced discomfort or unease. A third group was asked to write about things that affected them, with no specific instructions on whether they should be positive or negative. After ten weeks, those who wrote about their gratitude were more optimistic, felt better about their own lives, had a higher level of physical activity, and visited the doctor less frequently than the group that focused on the negative aspects of their lives.
Several studies in the last decade have provided strong evidence that those who consciously take note of the good things in their lives (by counting or listing them, for example) tend to be happier and have lower rates of depression.
In some cases, gratitude helped improve relationships. Studies showed that people who take the time to express gratitude for their partner not only have more positive thoughts toward them, but also find it easier to speak about their issues and problems in the relationship.
What is gratitude and how do we find it?
Gratitude is the acknowledgment of what we receive, tangible or intangible. People feel and express gratitude in many different ways. Recalling positive memories from the past; refusing to attribute positive experiences to superstitions like good luck; and maintaining an optimistic and hopeful outlook for the future are all ways in which we cultivate gratitude. This helps us focus on what we have instead of what we lack. And although it might seem like a simple or trivial activity, being consciously grateful is an important exercise that can positively impact our minds.
When we express gratitude, we don’t accept the good in our lives, but also admit that the source of those things lies at least partly outside of ourselves. In the words of Dr. Emmons, one of the leading scientific specialists on gratitude: “We acknowledge that other people gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Gratitude is an experience we should share and cultivate with others, so that they too can lead healthier lives. It can be especially challenging to teach children to be grateful, since they often say “thank you” out of good manners or to comply with adults’ requirements, and not because they actually feel gratitude.
“Although this may help children meet social expectations, they may miss out on documented benefits of gratitude down the road for building stronger social relationships, improving life satisfaction, and enhancing psychological well-being and overall health. Gratitude is more than behavior—it is also an internal experience,” explains Andrea Hussong, a psychologist who specializes in cultivating gratitude via interactions between children and their parents.
The key to raising grateful children, according to Hussong, is to be their role model, helping them connect the act of thanking to the feeling of gratitude. The experience of being grateful is a skill like any other that must be acquired with practice, thoughtfulness, and time.
The holiday season is a time of presents, parties, and New Year’s resolutions, but it’s also a good moment to reflect on other gifts we’ve received. We encourage you to sit withyour family and share the moments when you’ve felt support and affirmation from others around you. You’ll see that gratitude is the best way to channel the holiday spirit.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley; US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health; American Psychological Association: “A Grateful Heart is a Healthier Heart”; Harvard Mental Health Letter: “In praise of gratitude”