Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude
If you want to get healthier, give thanks.
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
What would happen if we extended the tradition of giving thanks, typically celebrated just once a year during the holiday season, throughout the entire year? Such gratitude would be rewarded with better health, say researchers.
No pill? No strict diet or exercise regimen? Can just a positive emotion such as gratitude guarantee better health? It may be a dramatic departure from what we've been taught about how to get healthier, but the connection between gratitude and health actually goes back a long way.
"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.
Benefits of Gratitude
Grateful people -- those who perceive gratitude as a permanent trait rather than a temporary state of mind -- have an edge on the not-so-grateful when it comes to health, according to Emmons' research on gratitude. "Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations," Emmons tells WebMD.
It's no secret that stress can make us sick, particularly when we can't cope with it. It's linked to several leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer, and claims responsibility for up to 90% of all doctor visits. Gratitude, it turns out, can help us better manage stress. "Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress," Emmons says.
Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say boosts the immune system. "There are some very interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function," says Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. In one, researchers comparing the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students under stress found that, by midterm, students characterized as optimistic (based on survey responses) maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared with their more pessimistic classmates.
Optimism also has a positive health impact on people with compromised health. In separate studies, patients confronting AIDS, as well as those preparing to undergo surgery, had better health outcomes when they maintained attitudes of optimism.
Gratitude in the Face of Loss
Even in the face of tremendous loss or tragedy, it's possible to feel gratitude. In fact, adversity can boost gratitude, recent findings show. In a web-based survey tracking the personal strengths of more than 3,000 American respondents, researchers noted an immediate surge in feelings of gratitude after Sept. 11, 2001.
Why would such a tragic event provoke gratitude, and what is its impact? Christopher Peterson, PhD, the University of Michigan psychologist who posted the survey, attributes this surge in gratitude among Americans post 9/11 to a sense of increased belonging. These feelings offered more than community building. Gratitude in the aftermath of 9/11 helped buffer people against the negative effects of stress, making them less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains Emmons.
Who Feels Gratitude?
How is it that some people manage to feel grateful in the face of challenging life circumstances, while others sink into despair? "So much of gratitude is about one's perspective and framework for looking at the world and at self. People who tend to be more mindful of the benefits they've received tend to focus their attention outward," Emmons explains.
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. Not surprising, 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, for the Japanese, their culture's emphasis on materialism is to blame.