Attitude of Gratitude
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
All the ways the simple act of giving thanks can change your life.
While the concept of giving thanks may be most closely associated with Thanksgiving, the benefits of gratitude stretch beyond the holiday season. In theory, gratitude is a simple concept, most commonly defined as, “the quality of being thankful.” However, as we’ll examine today, the real positive work of gratitude begins a step further, as “readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness.” Furthermore, Dr. Robert Emmons, professor at UC Davis and leading researcher on gratitude, defines it as, “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” To reap the multitude of emotional, psychological, and perhaps even physical benefits of gratitude, one must take action, transforming gratitude from a state of mind to a state of being.
When gratitude becomes an action, even a lifestyle, it “can be an incredibly powerful and invigorating experience,” as researcher Jeff Huffman states. A 2021 Harvard Medical article further explains that gratitude forces us to acknowledge the goodness in our lives and, “in the process…recognize that the source of goodness lies at least partially outside [ourselves].” The result? Being grateful helps us “connect to something larger than [ourselves] as individuals–whether to other people, nature or a higher power.”
Hundreds of studies have confirmed the emotional and psychological benefits of a gratitude-infused lifestyle. Though one gray area remains–can gratitude be powerful enough to bestow upon us numerous physical benefits? Can an attitude of gratitude really be the impenetrable buffer between our mortal selves and heart disease, insomnia and the like? This is one aspect of what we’ll examine today–how impactful an attitude of gratitude can truly be in our lives and bodies, inside and out.
A Fortifying Force
Two leading gratitude researchers, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of UC Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, conducted a study in which participants were asked to write a few sentences each week. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, where the other two groups did not. The results were clear, “after about 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.” Keeping a gratitude journal may seem a small change, but also resulted in the participants “exercising more and having fewer visits to physicians.”
Dr. Gail Saltz, psychoanalyst and assistant attending physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center notes that gratitude, “tends to result in increased self-esteem and confidence, which improves mood.” A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, “found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance.”
Psychologically, gratitude can be a powerful tool in overcoming trauma, and “helps to diminish the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after an upsetting experience,” says Dr. Saltz. Behavior Research and Therapy published a 2006 study that found, “Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
While it may seem unlikely, these studies and others suggest gratitude may have the power to “help people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships,” as a Harvard Medical article states. Dr. Saltz supports these ideas, that, “appreciating what you have can make you feel more optimistic and satisfied and experience less frustration, envy, and regret.” There is certainly mounting evidence that gratitude helps contribute to factors that make us happier, by decreasing stress and trauma and increasing self-esteem and overall life satisfaction.
To Better Health
While it’s clear that gratitude is linked to increased mental and emotional health, the question remains: Is gratitude powerful enough to positively impact our physical well-being? The answer depends on which area of health you’re examining.
When it comes to sleep, gratitude carries power greater than counting sheep. A 2009 study examined 401 people, 40% of whom had clinical sleep disorders. The study found, “more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day.” This and other studies, like a 2016 study whose outcomes saw women who kept a gratitude journal reporting better sleep quality to women who performed other tasks, show promising connections between gratitude practices and increased sleep quality.
In addition to sleep, an attitude of gratitude can be good for the heart. A 1995 study found that people who were appreciative had improved heart rate variability, “an indicator of good heart health.” These findings are supported by more recent studies, like one that found women who kept a gratitude journal over the course of a few weeks had lower blood pressure than those who wrote about daily events. Another study by Paul Mills, Laura Redwine et al, found, “patients [with established heart conditions] who did daily gratitude journaling for eight weeks showed decreased markers of inflammation at the end of the experiment.” These and other studies (like the Gratitude Research in Acute Coronary Events (GRACE) study) prove a positive connotation between improved heart health and the practice of gratitude, even for patients with established heart conditions.
In other realms of physical health, the findings are more mixed. While more research must be conducted for a definitive answer on whether gratitude can improve all aspects of our physical health, practicing gratitude regardless will clearly reap positive benefits in other areas of our lives.
Make a List
We’ve seen the numerous ways in which gratitude can increase self-esteem, help us catch some quality zzz’s, reduce stress and even blood pressure. So how does one go about incorporating more gratitude into their life? Pick one (or more) activities from this list, inspired by a Harvard Medical article, and see what gratitude can do for you.
- Make a gratitude list. Every day write down at least three things for which you are grateful. They can be as simple or detailed as you’d like.
- Write some thank you notes. Thank you notes need not come only after receiving physical gifts. Perhaps you’re feeling extra thankful to have a friend or loved one in your life. Sharing these feelings through a thank you note is a great way to express your gratitude and bring some joy to their life!
- Count your blessings. Similar to a gratitude list, counting your blessings involves writing about the things in your life for which you are grateful. This can also be a nice activity to do with family or friends around the dinner table to share and discuss. You may be surprised by the small things that others greatly appreciate.
- Pray. Also sometimes called “thanksgiving” (not the holiday), giving thanks to your higher power during religious prayer is a great way to cultivate gratitude.
- Meditate. Try a meditation exercise where you focus on things for which you are extra appreciative.
However you chose to practice gratitude on a daily basis, you’ll be sure to find some positive benefits, some of which you may never have expected.
Practicing gratitude is proven to improve emotional and psychological health. It also benefits sleep and heart health. Cultivate gratitude in your life by making a daily gratitude list, writing thank you notes or meditating.
Note: This article was originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.