How Staying Thankful Helps Your Health

November 18, 2019

Life is full of stressors — relationships, finances, health, work issues, and many other things weigh us down daily, and we can all become overwhelmed by them at times. We’ve all heard the cliches about remaining thankful, or counting our blessings, but when faced with real life struggles, these can seem like little more than glib platitudes. 

However, research shows that gratitude really does have a meaningful impact on our physical and mental health. However trite it may seem in stressful moments, cultivating a grateful heart has more health benefits than you realize — from better mood to better blood pressure and even improved heart health. Gratitude won’t solve the problems that are causing stress, but it can be an incredible tool to help cope with these situations without letting them deteriorate your health. Before we talk about the health benefits of gratitude, let’s talk about what it actually means.

What is Gratitude?

According to a 2012 study[1], gratitude takes two forms: gratitude as a mood, and gratitude as an affective trait. Gratitude as a mood means fluctuating feelings of thankfulness for specific things. When you’re watching your kids play in the sprinklers and suddenly feel thankful for them, or when someone does something kind for you and you experience gratitude for that behavior, you’re experiencing gratitude as a mood. 

Gratitude as an affective trait, on the other hand, can also be called “chronic gratitude”. It describes a tendency, or pattern toward regular gratitude, “coupled with a diminished threshold for experiencing gratitude” — in other words, you tend to feel grateful on a regular basis, and feelings of thankfulness can be triggered by smaller and smaller things.

In general, learning to practice the first type of gratitude — gratitude as a mood — can lead to the second type. The more often you intentionally give thanks, the more you will begin to find that thankfulness is your regular state of mind.

Health Effects of Gratitude

According to Paul Mills, PhD, “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure and improve immune function … grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and have higher rates of medication adherence.” Mills is only one of the researchers who have discovered the incredible health benefits of a grateful heart. Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits:

Lower Inflammation & Improved Heart Health

Doctor Mills’ 2015 study[2] examining 186 men and women with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure found through blood tests that patients who expressed more gratitude had lower inflammatory biomarkers, as well as better sleep, and less depression and fatigue. Since inflammation is a risk factor in progressing from Stage B to Stage C heart failure, lower inflammatory markers may actually reduce the risk of disease progression and death. Mills also conducted a second study[3] in which participants were asked to keep a gratitude journal for two months. When compared to the other patients who were treated with the standard protocol, patients who kept a gratitude journal showed lower inflammatory biomarkers, and  improved heart rate variability while they journaled, which is associated with reduced cardiac risk.

Lower Blood Pressure

Participants in a 2007 study[4] which examined 82 adults with hypertension, were divided into two groups. The control group received regular treatment, while the second group were required to list things they were grateful for on a telephone hotline in addition to their regular treatment. Researchers found that the group that participated in the exercise experienced a statistically significant decrease in systolic blood pressure when compared to the control group. Based on this study, it seems that staying mindful of the things you are thankful for may keep your blood pressure in check! This makes sense, since stress and anxiety are known to elevate blood pressure.

Better Sleep

Practicing gratitude can result in much better sleep, which is associated with better immune function, less pain, and many other health issues. A 2008 study[5] examining 401 people, many of whom suffered from impaired sleep, found that gratitude resulted in improved quantity and quality of sleep, as well as less daytime dysfunction. The study suggested that grateful people have more positive pre-sleep cognitions (a fancy way of referring to what you’re thinking about just before you go to sleep) and those with positive thoughts before bed enjoyed better and longer sleep. If you’ve followed our page for any amount of time, you know quality sleep is one of the four major pillars of health, and poor sleep can contribute to chronic inflammation, back pain, mood disorders, and much more. So when you tuck in tonight, make sure you’re thinking thankful thoughts! Your body will thank you in the morning.

Lower Depression

Depression is more than just feeling sad, and there is usually not a simple quick fix to depression. There are, however, many things you can do to alleviate depression symptoms, including working to get better sleep, more natural light, restoring a healthy gut balance, and being intentional about focusing on blessings instead of stressors and things that cause pain. This doesn’t mean you don’t process through those things, or that you suppress negative emotions. It’s important to face and deal with these things. But it is also important to remember your blessings as you do so. In 2016, a study[6] examined the effects of intentional gratitude on participants who struggled with clinically low mental health. All participants received counseling, but one group also did a gratitude journal exercise. Not surprisingly, participants in this group reported significantly better mental health than those in the control group.

Better Conflict Response

Research studying the effects of gratitude on aggressive behavior found that grateful people found it easier to empathize with other people, and were able to respond better to hurtful situations — with fewer hurt feelings and less physical aggression. In other words a grateful heart translated to less of a “short fuse”, which, as you can imagine, contributes to healthier and less fraught relationships. The more your tendency is to focus on the positive and the more you are thankful for those things, the less entitled you feel for everything to go your way, and the less likely you are to respond with anger when they don’t.

Better Self-Care

In one study[7], participants were split into three groups: one journaled things they were grateful for each week, a second journaled “hassles” or things that irritated them that week, and a third simply wrote down events with no positive or negative emphasis. At the end of 10 weeks, the group that kept a gratitude journal reported better moods, fewer symptoms of physical illness, a better outlook on their overall life and the upcoming week, and significantly more exercise. That’s right… people who spent time focusing on what they were thankful for were significantly more likely to exercise each week than those writing down their hassles. Exercise is an absolutely crucial component to staying healthy and to addressing many health issues. 

How to Practice Gratitude

Many experts recommend keeping a gratitude journal. As an experiment, try a 30-day gratitude challenge. Each day before you go to bed, write down the things you’re thankful for. Write down as many as you can, and give thanks for each of these things before you go to sleep. You can train yourself to be thankful for the positive sides of difficult situations, as well as to be thankful for things you may take for granted: running water, electricity, and food in the refrigerator. 

It can also be a good idea to vocally or silently give thanks as these things occur to you throughout your day, or if you’re in a bad mood, intentionally turn your mind to what you have to be grateful for. Instead of, “I can’t believe traffic is so bad! I’m going to be late!” try, “Thank God I have a car with gas in it!” Pay attention to how your mood and sleep improve during this time. Chances are you’ll find that it’s easier to be thankful at the end of the 30 days than it was at the beginning. Watch your relationships, mood, and physical health improve as you practice thankfulness each day.

References

[1] DeWall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Pond, R. S., Jr., Kashdan, T. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A grateful heart is a nonviolent heart: Cross-sectional, experience sampling, longitudinal, and experimental evidence. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 232-240. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550611416675.

[2] 1: Mills PJ, Redwine L, Wilson K, Pung MA, Chinh K, Greenberg BH, Lunde O, Maisel A, Raisinghani A, Wood A, Chopra D. The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients. Spiritual Clin Pract (Wash D C ). 2015 Mar;2(1):5-17. PubMed PMID: 26203459; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4507265.

[3] Redwine LS, Henry BL, Pung MA, Wilson K, Chinh K, Knight B, Jain S, Rutledge T, Greenberg B, Maisel A, Mills PJ. Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosom Med. 2016 Jul-Aug;78(6):667-76. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000316. PubMed PMID: 27187845; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4927423.

[4] Shipon, R. W. (2007). Gratitude: Effect on perspectives and blood pressure of inner-city African-American hypertensive patients. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 68(3-B), 1977.

[5] Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J, Atkins S. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res. 2009 Jan;66(1):43-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002. Epub 2008 Nov 22. PubMed PMID: 19073292.

[6] Y. Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, Sydney McInnis, Paul Toth & Lynn Gilman (2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332.

[7] Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377-89. PubMed PMID: 12585811.

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