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Can Gratitude Make Us Healthier?

We’ve all known people who, no matter what their circumstances, always seem to find the good in things and in people. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s happened to them in the past, or what their present circumstances may be, they are grateful for their many blessings and seem to consistently radiate joy, compassion, and generosity. These people are a pleasure to be around. Sure, there are times, especially when we’re feeling down or particularly cynical, that these kinds of people can be kind of irritating. But, more often than not they lift others up and their positive energy is contagious.

What makes them so? I’m sure that there are volumes of psychological, sociological, and other scientific writing that explores what makes these folks tick. But, I think it comes down to one fairly simple distinction. These positive people view their world as one of abundance rather than scarcity. They view their life, and everyone and everything in it, as a blessing, something conferred on them that they haven’t really earned and didn’t likely deserve. In short, they believe they’ve been showered by blessings and are appropriately thankful for them. They live life in a state of gratitude.

Positive psychology has studied the science of Gratitude…

An Attitude of Gratitude delivers numerous health benefits.

An Attitude of Gratitude delivers numerous health benefits.

In the growing field of scientific inquiry known as positive psychology, there is increasing evidence demonstrating that this sense of gratitude actually contributes to better health. The consensus amongst these research scientists is that an attitude of gratitude will not only make you feel psychologically healthier but physically healthier as well.

Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley and UC Davis have collaborated to launch the Science and Practice of Gratitude, a multiyear research project intended to study the effect and practice of gratitude. They recently produced this excellent radio program that expands upon the Science of Gratitude: CLICK HERE TO LISTEN. The impetus for this ambitious project is the growing volume of research that continues to reinforce how powerful gratitude can be to our emotional and physical well being.

Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, and a renowned thought leader on the science of gratitude says,

“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.”

He has studied more than a thousand individuals, from age eight to eighty, and has found that people who practice gratitude consistently experience the following physical benefits:

1. Lower blood pressure
2. Improve immune function
3. Better quality sleep 
4. Stronger heart health
5. Less inflammation
6. Lower amounts of the hormone cortisol which is a marker for stress
7. Improves irregular heart beats, arrhythmia
8. Less depression
9. Less fatigue

“Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations,” Emmons reports.

A grateful person accepts all of life, whether good or bad, it’s triumphs and tribulations, and recognizes it as a gift. Thankful people tend to lead more successful lives. They engage in doing good things, and that action leads to more gratitude. It leads to acts of generosity, compassion, more forgiveness, and more pro-social behavior. They look at life as a source of abundance rather than scarcity. The practice of gratitude not only makes people feel good in the present, but it also increases the likelihood that people will function optimally and feel good in the future. With gratitude comes the understanding that we generally get more than we deserve.

It would seem that there is very little downside to practicing gratitude but a very encouraging upside. But, could this sense of gratitude simply be correlated to all these positive findings rather than causative. In other words, maybe these lucky people who enjoy better health and well being simply feel grateful because they are in better health. But are they really healthier because they practice gratitude? In a series of clinical trials led by Dr. Emmons and his colleague Dr. Michael McCullough from the University of Miami, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens  they concluded that the relationship between the practice of gratitude and positive well being is in fact causative and not simply correlated. So, practicing gratitude can indeed make us healthier.

Sounds encouraging… But, what can we actually do about this? How can we “practice gratitude”?

OK, so how does one actually put this into practice? There are definite challenges to the practice of gratitude. Life isn’t always a bed of roses and real people daily contend with often overwhelming problems. What can somebody do to try to be and feel more grateful?

Gratitude journals are the most effective method to begin to feel and be more grateful.

A simple gratitude journal can help people feel and become more grateful.

A simple gratitude journal can help people feel and become more grateful.

Well, one of the most effective approaches these researchers have found is to keep a Gratitude Journal. This can be very simple. What they suggest is to make daily entries that enumerate anything and everything for which you might be grateful. It’s best if you make and record these observations toward the end of each day. In some studies, the participants were directed to make their journal entries as late in the day as possible, but before they got too sleepy to reflect on their day. More than any other controllable activity, this practice of keeping a gratitude journal had a demonstrable effect on improving people’s outlook and attitude, and fostering a real sense of appreciation and gratefulness.

With a good sense of the irony involved, as we pause our hyper-busy lives later this week to give thanks for our blessings, I will note this research amongst the long list of things for which I am grateful. It happily confirms what I had already come to suspect, that living life with an attitude of gratitude was not only good for my emotional and spiritual well being, but would in fact help me to enjoy better physical health.

Wishing all of you the happiest of Thanksgivings and a life full of health, happiness, and hope!

 

Works cited:
1. Emmons R, McCullough M. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389.
2. Emmons R, “Why Gratitude is Good”. The Greater Good, the Science and Meaning of Life. greatergood.berkelye.edu. University of California, Berkeley. November 16, 2010.
3. Wood, Alex. Gratitude Influences Sleep Through the Mechanism of Pre-sleep Cognitions. The Journal of Psychosomatic Research. January 2009Volume 66, Issue 1, Pages 43–48​
4. Wood, Alex. The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality. 2008, Vol. 42, 854–871

Paul Reilly
Paul Reilly
Paul is the Owner, President, and Head Strength and Balance Coach of ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.