As it turns out, there’s something to that old adage about counting your blessings. Indeed, studies suggest maintaining a sense of gratitude is good for both mind and body.
“Gratitude is like a foundational piece of our soul,” said Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health and the chief of the behavioral medicine division at the University of California in San Diego. “If we choose to tap into the magic of it, then there are so many beautiful downstream consequences.”
In a study of 186 people with asymptomatic heart failure, for example, Mills found the most grateful participants tended to have better moods, higher quality sleep and more self-efficacy, or the feeling that they can take care of themselves. They also had significantly less inflammation, which can exacerbate heart failure.
A second study showed that people who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks had a significant reduction in inflammation and improved heart rate variability, a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats. Low heart rate variability is associated with a greater risk of heart disease. Those who didn’t write down their blessings saw no such improvements.
“This is highly powerful,” Mills said. “To improve the inflammation was significant. Even drugs don’t typically do that.”
Maintaining an attitude of gratitude has a host of physical, psychological and social benefits, said Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.
In addition to fostering feelings of joy, optimism and compassion, “gratitude lights up parts of the brain's reward pathway and the hypothalamus, which controls the release of hormones that regulate bodily processes,” he said.
Emmons and his colleagues analyzed results from a nationwide survey and found that feelings of gratitude are associated with lower levels of HbA1c, a measure of blood sugar control. People with higher levels of HbA1c are at greater risk for developing complications from Type 2 diabetes.
According to Emmons, when people take things for granted, they are diminishing the good aspects of life and amplifying the bad. Instead, he suggested that people take life “as granted.”
“When you view an aspect of your life as “granted,” it looks like a gift,” he said. “All goods look better when they look like gifts. The good appreciates in value, so we extract more pleasure from it.”
While not everybody naturally sees the glass as half-full, Emmons said it’s possible to cultivate and strengthen a sense of gratitude with these simple steps:
- Use your strengths and talents to help others. “Paradoxically, we become more grateful when we become a giver rather than a receiver.”
- Reflect on the bad times in life. “To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. The realization that we made it through past tough times sets up a fertile contrast for present gratitude.”
- Go through the motions by smiling and saying thank you, even if you don’t feel it. “By living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.”
- Practice prospective gratitude. “If you are struggling with feeling gratitude in your current situation, project yourself into the future and imagine how grateful you will be when your circumstances change,” This has been a powerful tool for people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mills said keeping a gratitude journal is another good way to get into the zone. There are quite a few apps available, and entries can be as simple as a hot cup of coffee or a tasty dessert.
“Once you’ve done it long enough, gratitude exists as a primal benefit that you’re living with at every moment,” he said. “It provides a true foundation for health and well-being.”