Can Gratitude Affect Your Health?

My Best Buddy - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

My Best Buddy - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

This is my friend Toby. Today I was thinking about how grateful I am that he is part of my life. It made wonder - does gratitude affect your health? I’ve always believed that it does. I’m happier when I’m focused on the things I’m grateful for rather than what frustrates me. But I wondered – was I alone in that belief?

“’Thousands of years of literature talk about the benefits of cultivating gratefulness as a virtue’ says University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons. Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have extolled gratitude as a virtue integral to health and well-being. Now, through a recent movement called positive psychology, mental health professionals are taking a close look at how virtues such as gratitude can benefit our health. And they’re reaping some promising results.” (Heubeck, 2006)

“Positive psychology, instead of focusing on illness and emotional problems, studies health-promoting behavior and the pleasurable parts of life.” (Campbell)

So, I’m not alone in believing that gratitude has many benefits. In fact, the results of several scientific studies prove that gratitude affects our health in a positive way.

“One study by a couple of American researchers assigned young adults to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). They assigned groups to journal about things that annoyed them, or reasons why they were better off than others. The young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to the other groups. While that shows a clear benefit of gratitude, it also makes a clear distinction. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don’t have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.

“The effect of gratitude is not just limited to young adults who haven’t yet been beaten down by the sad realities of life. In addition, even less frequent moments of gratitude can have an effect. The same researchers conducted a separate study on adults, which showed that even a weekly gratitude journal was beneficial. Subjects assigned to journal weekly on gratitude showed greater improvements in optimism. That makes sense. But that’s not all; it also influenced their behaviors. Keeping a gratitude journal also caused greater improvements in exercise patterns. Lastly, it also caused a reduction in physical ailments, so these subjects had fewer aches and pains (tired of your carpal tunnel syndrome? Be grateful you don’t have a headache.)

“A third study from earlier this year did not require a gratitude journal, but simply looked at the amount of gratitude people tended to show in their daily lives (Ng et al, 2012). In this study, a group of Chinese researchers looked at the combined effects of gratitude and sleep quality on symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and with lower anxiety and depression. This begged the question, is the level of gratitude improving these symptoms or is it the fact that the patients are getting better sleep? These researchers ran some analyses controlling for the amount of sleep and revealed some interesting links.

“They found that after controlling for the amount of sleep people got, gratitude still had an effect on lower depression scores. This means that regardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed. With anxiety they found a different result. After controlling for sleep, gratitude showed no effect on anxiety. So while higher gratitude led to less anxiety originally, this is simply because it helped people sleep better, and sleeping better improved their anxiety. So gratitude had a direct effect on depression symptoms (the more gratitude, the less depression) and an indirect effect on anxiety (increased gratitude led to improved sleep, which led to lower anxiety). Either way, with gratitude you’re better off, and you get a good night’s sleep.” (Korb, 2012)

But why does gratitude improve our health? I can certainly understand how that might make me less depressed, but how can it affect aches and pains?

“The wide variety of effects that gratitude can have may seem surprising, but a direct look at the brain activity during gratitude yields some insight. The final study I’m going to share comes from the National Institute of Health (NIH). NIH researchers examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects summoned up feelings of gratitude (Zahn et al, 2009). They found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking, and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. From this evidence on brain activity it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude cold have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise, and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains.

“Furthermore, feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine feels good to get, which is why it’s generally considered the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter. But dopamine is also important in initiating action. That means increases in dopamine make you more likely to do the thing you just did. It’s the brain saying, ‘Oh, do that again.’” (Korb, 2012)

As an aging full-time caregiver, I can tell you that reducing depression and aches and pains is a powerful benefit, but there are more benefits to gratitude than that. As my husband’s memory worsens, I find myself answering the same questions over and over. In some cases, as many as three and four times within a five-minute period. I’m not a saint – that drives me nuts. But if I stop a moment and focus on how grateful I am that he is still living and still able to hold a conversation, then the frustration melts away.

“In fact, gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous. Research reveals gratitude can have these seven benefits:

1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying ‘thank you’ constitute good manners, but showing appreciation can help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion. The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to see an ongoing relationship. So whether you thank a stranger for holding the door or you send a quick thank-you note to that coworker who helped you with a project, acknowledging other people’s contributions can lead to new opportunities.

2. Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. …

3. Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.

4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a pro-social manner, even when others behave less kind, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.

5. Grateful people sleep better. Writing a gratitude journal improves sleep according to a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.

6. Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athlete’s self-esteem, which is an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs – which is a major factor in reduced self-esteem – grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.

7. Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – fosters resilience.” (Morin, 2014)

“… researchers at the University of Connecticut found that gratitude can have a protective effect against heart attacks. Studying people who had experienced one heart attack, the researchers found that those patients who saw benefits and gains from their heart attack, such as becoming more appreciative of life, experienced a lower risk of having another heart attack.” (Campbell)

Gratitude is a tool that anyone can use, but studies have shown that people who focus on material possessions – whether they have many or none – are less likely to be satisfied with their lives.

“You don’t need to have a lot to be mindful of what you’ve got, according to Edward Diener, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, who has studied extensively life satisfaction of people from various cultures. He found that people in India living in poverty report low levels of life satisfaction. However, a high percentage of people in affluent Japan do, too. Diener suggests that an emphasis on materialism is to blame.

“Who, then, has a high level of life satisfaction, if not the very poor or the very rich? The middle class do, according to Diener’s findings – particularly those who have risen from poverty. Moreover, he reports that the people of Ireland, a country boasting a ‘count your blessings’ culture, report high levels of life satisfaction. As for a group of multimillionaires from the Forbes 400 list? They weren’t much happier than the average suburbanite.” (Heubeck, 2006)

So, what can we do to increase the impact gratitude has on our own lives?

“– Maintain a gratitude journal. Emmon’s research showed that people who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives, and maintain greater optimism about the future.

“– Create a list of benefits in your life and ask yourself, ‘To what extent do I take these for granted?’ Some people need such concrete visual reminders to maintain mindfulness of their gratitude, explains Emmons.

“– Talk to yourself in a creative, optimistic, and appreciative manner, suggests Sam Quick, PhD, of the University of Kentucky. This could entail simply reflecting on things for which you’re grateful or, if you’re facing a challenging situation, seeing how it can ultimately be beneficial. For instance, having to cope with particularly difficult people in your job or neighborhood can improve your patience and understanding.

“– Reframe a situation by looking at it with a different, more positive attitude, offers Quick. He provides this example: Rather than seeing his 6-year-old daughter as cranky, irritable, and troublesome, a father might reach the conclusion that the youngster is tired and needs rest.” (Heubeck, 2006)

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for many things in my life. I’m grateful that God watches over me every day. I’m grateful that my husband can still carry on a meaningful conversation, even if I must answer the same question more than once. I’m grateful for my wonderful family and friends. I’m grateful for Toby because he makes me laugh when I’m sad and he comforts me when I’m feeling alone. I’m grateful that I’ve discovered the joy that writing fiction gives me.

And, I’m grateful for you, my readers. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read my blog post. I hope that however you choose to spend your time this Thanksgiving your hearts will be filled with joy and gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

Toby and Me - Photo by Leslie Collins Flynn

Toby and Me - Photo by Leslie Collins Flynn