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How Feeling Grateful Can Change Your Life… and Your Health

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It seems next to impossible to read any self-help book these days without coming across advice to “develop an attitude of gratitude.” But why? How does feeling grateful help us? Will we be happier and healthier, attract more friends, or feel a greater sense of well-being if we’re grateful? As it turns out… the answer is yes!

Gratitude is an acknowledgment that something of value has been received, recognized, and appreciated.

While facing the demands and pressures of our daily lives, it can be difficult to stop and think about what we’re grateful for each day; but those who do generally experience amazing benefits. Read on to discover the science behind gratitude, exactly what happens when we’re grateful, and why gratitude is so good for your physical and emotional health.

Gratitude Through the Ages

Historically, various cultures have taught that expressing gratitude is virtuous. Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman politician, stated that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

On the flip side, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher, said that ingratitude was an abomination. William Shakespeare said “Ingratitude is monstrous.” According to these venerable gentlemen and others like them, gratitude could be considered the mother of all virtues; with ingratitude the worst of sins.

More modern day thinking on gratitude is not much different. John F. Kennedy said that “As we express our gratitude we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

According to writer William Arthur Ward: “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”

What Research Shows About Feeling Grateful

Today, gratitude is a subject of extensive theory and research. Researchers are discovering that there are many positive outcomes to adopting feelings of gratitude. The practice has a powerful effect on the psyche with many associated benefits – physical, mental, and spiritual – and even affects the expression of some genes.

Gratitude researchers Michael E. McCullough, Robert A. Emmons, and Jo-Ann Tsang have conducted a number of clinical trials and written many papers on the subject in the past couple of decades, working together and individually. Among other things, they found that study subjects who adopted a grateful outlook, for the most part, had increased feelings of well-being. [1]

Gratitude cycleApparently, the more gratitude you cultivate, the more you experience. In a 2004 study, these researchers found that when subjects cultivated more grateful moods than were typical, they reported feeling grateful more frequently each day. Each episode was more intense, and they felt grateful to more people than was typical for them. [2]

According to McCullough and Emmons, gratitude is the “forgotten factor” in happiness research. They believe that the benefits of expressing gratitude range from better physical health to improved mental alertness. As an additional benefit, people who express gratitude are more likely to offer emotional support to others, which is always a good thing.

In a 2003 paper on gratitude and happiness, researchers found that grateful individuals had at least three characteristics: [3]

#1. A sense of abundance, that they had not been deprived in life

#2. An appreciation of everyday simple pleasures

#3. An appreciation of other people and their contributions

Feeling Grateful and the Brain

A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology demonstrated that feelings of gratitude affect particular regions of the brain. Researchers conducted experiments in which gratitude was induced in subjects while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They were looking to see how feelings of gratitude would affect brain activity. The stimuli used to elicit the feelings of gratitude were taken from stories of Holocaust survivors. There are many stories from Holocaust survivors about receiving gifts of food and clothing, or being sheltered by strangers, for which they were deeply grateful.

The study participants were asked to imagine being in the midst of the Holocaust and what their own experience might feel like if they received similar gifts. The study results revealed that feeling grateful stimulated brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex.

Researchers explained “The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the good will of others.” [4]

A 2009 study found that feelings of gratitude stimulated the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that (among other things) regulates stress. Gratitude also stimulated the ventral tegmental area of the brain which produces the sensation of pleasure. [5] It appears that gratitude has the ability to affect stress response and stimulate feelings of pleasure – both important factors in overall well-being.

feeling grateful infographic

The Social Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude affects more than just brain function. There are a plethora of studies on the subject of gratitude. Here are just some of the findings:

  • Grateful people tend to be happier and better adjusted because feelings of gratitude block negative emotions. [6]
  • Grateful people tend to cope better with stress, and are more satisfied with life. [7-11]
  • Feeling grateful enhances social relationships. People like being around grateful people and are more willing to help them.
  • Practicing gratitude helps you to have better self-esteem. [13]
  • Grateful people tend to be more optimistic. [14]
  • People who are grateful tend to be more empathetic. [15]
  • Grateful people tend not to be materialistic. [16]
  • Feeling grateful increases an overall sense of well-being. [14]

family feeling grateful Gratitude also deepens love relationships. Taking that a step further, psychologists have found that feeling grateful provides the psychological “glue” which binds individuals closer together.

They found that gratitude was associated with a variation in a gene known as CD38. This gene polymorphism was “significantly associated with global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness, and positive emotions.”

Interestingly, CD38 affects the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone referred to as the “bonding hormone” because it seems to enhance and facilitate bonding between people. [12, 8]

Grateful people tend to be less aggressive. Psychology professor Nathan DeWall conducted five experiments with 900+ undergraduate students, which demonstrated that gratitude is linked to fewer feelings of aggression. [17]

DeWall stated “I wanted to bust the myth that only certain people are grateful. Gratitude is an equal opportunity emotion that causes lower levels of aggression.”

The Health Benefits of Gratitude

  • Grateful people report feeling healthy and tend to experience fewer aches and pains. They are more likely to go see a doctor regularly and take care of their health. [18]
  • Practicing gratitude helps to increase quality of sleep, reduces the time needed to fall asleep, and improves sleep duration. [1,14,19]
  • Feeling grateful is good for the heart and cardiovascular system. Studies have found that grateful people had lower levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol, increased levels of good (HDL) cholesterol, and lower levels of creatinine. [20] Grateful people also had lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure [14], lower levels of inflammatory bio-markers, a better functioning nervous system, and healthier heart rates. [21]
  • Grateful people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol [22, 6], which some health experts refer to as the “death” hormone because its effects on the body are so widespread and can be detrimental if chronically elevated.
  • Grateful people enjoy better physical health and have more energy, vitality, and mental vigor. [23]
  • People who are grateful are less likely to suffer workplace burnout. [24]
  • Practicing gratitude reduces depression and may be helpful for those suffering from PTSD. [25, 26]
  • People practicing gratitude daily decreased the effects of neurodegeneration that can occur with increasing age. [6]
  • Feelings of hopelessness and suicide can be improved with gratitude practice. In one study, writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88% of suicidal patients, and increased levels of optimism in 94%. [6]

Helpful Tips for Cultivating Gratitude

gratitude journalThe aforementioned Robert Emmons is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, and a leading expert on the science behind gratitude. In his 2015 article “Gratitude is Good Medicine” [6], he advises that “a successful gratitude practice starts with recognizing what you’re grateful for, acknowledging it, and appreciating it.

Prof Emmons is a proponent of writing down specific moments in the day for which you found something to be grateful.

Whether it be a bird’s beautiful song or someone holding a door for you, or a stranger helping you out when your car breaks down, there are many things to be grateful for each and every day. Writing them down daily helps you to remember to be grateful, that there are indeed things to be grateful for and in so doing, you are actually helping to rewire your brain.

Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist in the field of positive psychology, has a practical suggestion for expressing gratitude. In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness, Seligman recommends systematically expressing gratitude in daily letters to family members, co-workers, friends, and others to whom you feel grateful.

He advises being disciplined, and making it a part of daily routine by writing two short letters or emails (text messages would work as well) each morning to people for whom you feel grateful, thanking them for what they do.

You can even use gratitude to help yourself fall asleep at night. Pay attention to what you are thinking about as you try to fall asleep. Let go of worries and anxiety because they will increase your stress levels, keep you awake, and/or reduce sleep quality and length. Instead, think of things to be grateful for that day. These thoughts help you to feel more relaxed, less stressed, and promote more restful and better quality sleep.

Humility is another key to promoting gratitude. Humble people know that they need others around, and that they are not self-sufficient. Being humble acknowledges that we rely upon family, friends, God, the government, and even our pets to provide the things we cannot provide for ourselves.

When a person adopts humility, and begins to practice gratitude, it becomes more possible to see the interconnectedness of all things. Sometimes we are on the giving side, sometimes the receiving side. Staying humble and feeling grateful helps us to acknowledge that all of life is a gift.

For more resources on gratitude, visit the Greater Good Science Center website. Located in Berkeley, CA, this organization studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being and how to foster a more “thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.” They have an extensive amount of information on their website about gratitude.

In conclusion, practicing gratitude and making it a part of our daily lives can help us live life more mindfully and with better awareness. Once a person begins to cultivate gratitude, many benefits follow. Not only for that person, but for all the people with whom the grateful person interacts.

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Sources:

  1. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life
  2. Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience
  3. Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-being
  4. Neural Correlates of Gratitude
  5. The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence from Functional MRI
  6. Gratitude is Good Medicine
  7. Coping Style as a Psychological Resource of Grateful People
  8. The Role of Gratitude in the Development of Social Support, Stress, and Depression: Two Longitudinal Studies
  9. Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life
  10. Gratitude Uniquely Predicts Satisfaction with Life: Incremental Validity above the Domains and Facets of the Five Factor Model
  11. Strengths of Character and Well-Being
  12. Evidence for a Role of the Oxytocin System, Indexed by Genetic Variation in CD38, in the Social Bonding Effects of Expressed Gratitude
  13. Gratitude Enhances Change in Athletes’ Self-Esteem: The Moderating Role of Trust in Coach
  14. The Impact of a Brief Gratitude Intervention on Subjective Well-being, Biology and Sleep
  15. Is Gratitude a Moral Affect?
  16. Is Gratitude an Alternative to Materialism?
  17. A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart
  18. Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood
  19. Gratitude Influences Sleep Through the Mechanism of Pre-sleep Cognitions
  20. Dr. Wendy Mendes, UCSF, Video “How Does Gratitude Affect Health & Aging”
  21. The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients
  22. Optimizing Expectations and Distraction Leads to Lower Cortisol Levels after Acute Stress
  23. The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography
  24. How Gratitude Can Reduce Burnout in Health Care
  25. Gratitude, Depression and PTSD: Assessment of Structural Relationships
  26. Gratitude and Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-being in Vietnam War Veterans

Article Summary

  • Gratitude is an acknowledgment that something of value has been received, recognized, and appreciated.

  • Gratitude has been considered the mother of all virtues; ingratitude the worst of sins.

  • The more gratitude you cultivate, the more frequently you’ll feel grateful.

  • Researchers found that grateful individuals had at least three characteristics:

    • A sense of abundance, that they had not been deprived in life
    • An appreciation of everyday simple pleasures
    • An appreciation of other people & their contributions
  • Gratitude cultivates many social and health benefits.

  • Feeling grateful promotes more restful and better quality sleep.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Thank you. I really needed these notes to be implanted in my heart. Im dealing with lots of bitterness. But I know that this particular words are for me today from God! Praise his Holy Name!!!

  2. I am maraige with a man that like of drinking wisky. I donot drink any alchol my husband had a stroke he still drinking wisky as per doctor concent

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