The Gift of Gratitude

With the holidays and flu season quickly approaching I thought I might touch on the topic of gratitude, as it can bring with it health and happiness! Research on gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater health and happiness. Whereas, people experience more positive emotions, savor good experiences, enjoy improved health, are better able to deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

Your gratitude doesn’t have to even focus on a present-day event to derive benefit. For instance, in one study participants were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone from their past who had never been properly thanked for his/her kindness. This action caused a spike in their happiness scores and the uptick in happiness lasted for a month. So, think about someone who you’ve never had a chance to properly thank and consider writing them a letter of gratitude. If they’re no longer living, writing the letter can still be beneficial to your health, as the focus on gratitude is what seems to yield the positive affects even if the letter never gets delivered. This may have to do with gratitude activating brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine - the feel good or reward neurotransmitter. This has a double benefit, one, you feel good, and secondly, an increase in dopamine makes you more likely to do it again. So, get high on gratitude folks!

In another gratitude study, participants were divided into three groups with one of the following writing assignments: (1) write about things they were grateful for that occurred during the week (2) write about daily irritations or things that had displeased them (3) write about events that affected them with no emphasis on them being negative or positive. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation. So, maybe a dose of gratitude in your life could kickstart your exercise habit or increase your amount of daily movement or improve your health. At a minimum it will help you feel more optimistic and better about your life. I’ve been working to increase gratitude exercises in my own life and the other day during a run, I actually thought about running a marathon (which I haven’t done in 8yrs) – now that’s optimistic!

If you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep or find yourself with a busy brain at night that tends to ruminate over the unfortunate events of the day, consider adopting a gratitude routine before bed. It can be as simple as jotting down a few things you’re grateful for. Put another way, by reflecting on your blessings before bed and you may find you’ll fall asleep faster, sleep longer, have more restorative sleep, and reduce anxiety producing thoughts that keep you up at night. This has been supported by numerous studies even among people with sleep disorders and/or medical conditions that can impact sleep. The science behind this is actually linked to changes in the brain. Whereas, the more gratitude we have the more blood flow to the hypothalamus, which controls lots of body functions, but notably eating, drinking, sleeping, metabolism, and emotional responses.

Maybe you sleep just fine, but feel bad about yourself or your life? Gratitude may be just the ticket to turn those thoughts around and boost your self-esteem. Gratitude actually reduces social comparison, so rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs, you may find that you’ll develop an appreciation for others’ accomplishments and in-turn boost your own self-esteem. Researchers at Ohio State University looked at the impact of gratitude on depression, suicidal ideation, and self-esteem. What they found was participants with higher levels of gratefulness tended to have a higher level of self-esteem. Moreover, when self-esteem was higher, people were less depressed and had less suicidal ideation. This speaks to the fact that other research has shown gratitude reduces stress and increases mental strength and can even help people 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. 

The benefits of gratitude aren’t limited to our mental health either. Gratitude can boost your immune system, increase your longevity, reduce stress, reduce aches and pains, headaches and help you adopt healthier habits and thus live a healthier lifestyle – which further benefits your overall health and wellbeing! There are so many benefits to your physical and mental health it’s impossible to list them all, but before I conclude I do want to go into some research on gratitude and heart health, as it seems fitting that gratitude can help the heart.

Paul Mills is a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and has been researching behavior and heart health for decades. In a study of his, he took 186 men and women (average age of 66), who had damage to their hearts; either from years of sustained high blood pressure or as a result of a heart attack or heart infection. They filled out a questionnaire rating how grateful they were about people, places or things in their life. The more grateful they felt the less depressed their mood, the better sleep they got, and they had more energy – no surprise there. However, when Dr. Mills did blood tests to measure inflammation, which relates to the bodies response to injury, plaque build-up in the arteries etc., he found lower levels among those who were grateful. Intrigued by this finding, Mills did a follow-up study to look more closely at gratitude and heart health. So, he tested 40 patients for heart disease and noted biological indications of heart disease such as inflammation and heart rhythm. He then asked half the patients to keep a gratitude journal and write 2-3 things they were grateful for most days during the week. After two months, the patients were retested, and their inflammation levels were reduced, and heart rhythms improved, and thus so did their heart disease risk.

I believe gratitude may be the cornerstone to health and wellbeing, and it doesn’t require training or cost anything. It’s something everyone can do for their health, and you may find that the benefits you feel go beyond your person, but out into the world. As I tell my daughter, loose the “tude” and have some gratitude!

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this information. I sincerely thank you for reading. I hope you have a blessed day!

Coaching Corner

  • How might you increase gratitude in your life?

  • What activities or feelings make you feel grateful?

  • What are you the most grateful for right now?