Gratitude’s Impact on Health
What if I told you that one simple practice could reduce your stress, help your mental health, reduce pain, and increase your happiness. You’d say I’m crazy. But the scientific research on gratitude is starting to show all of these things to be true. Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with many benefits, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.
Gratitude may also benefit people with various medical and psychological challenges. For example, one study found that more grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation, and another found that heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards. Several studies have found that more grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events.
Gratitude is a recognition of the external influences that create positive outcomes in your life, a state of being thankful. Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone. But how does gratitude help our bodies and minds?
Gratitude releases negative emotions. Studies have shown that areas of the brain affecting emotions are stimulated when practicing gratitude. This has led to people seeking mental health therapy to feel better and recover sooner than those who did not practice gratitude.
Gratitude can reduce pain. One study found that 16% of people who kept a gratitude journal found that their pain symptoms were reduced and their well being was increased. They were also more likely to work out and to stick with treatment. Further studies showed that this was due to gratitude practices helping balance dopamine levels in the body.
Gratitude increases sleep quality. Studies have shown that receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness activates the hypothalamus, and thereby regulates all bodily mechanisms controlled by the hypothalamus, out of which sleep is a vital one.
Gratitude can reduce stress and depression. Studies on gratitude and appreciation found that participants who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. By reducing the stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
But what is a gratitude practice? It’s more than simply saying thank you, or appreciating the people in your life. Here are three simple acts to starting a gratitude practice and feeling happier in your life:
- Gratitude Journal: For 15 minutes each day, write down what you are thankful for. Little and big things. People and moments. Significant assets in your life during a difficult time, or lessons you’ve learned from negative experiences.
- Find a gratitude buddy: A friend, spouse or colleague can sit with you each day, for as few as 5 minutes and you each say one thing that you are grateful for. Then the other can ask a few simple questions to expound on the statement. This is especially nice because it can bring you together as you experience positive feelings together.
- Positive meditation: Sit quietly and think about a difficult time in your life or a painful experience. Then think about your life now. Focus on the positive things that you’ve experienced since that time. Think of all the ways you are content and happy now.
Gratitude’s benefits take time. Journaling, thanking people, and being mindful of the positive things in your life are processes that build over time and create incremental changes in your stress and mood. But give it a try and see how you feel.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
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Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). The psychology of gratitude (Series in affective science). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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McCraty, R., & Childre, D. (2004). The grateful heart: The psychophysiology of appreciation. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), Series in affective science. The psychology of gratitude (pp. 230–255). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.