Science shows gratitude can have
wide-ranging health benefits.
On the fourth Thursday of every November, Americans gather at the homes of family and friends for Thanksgiving. While this holiday is most often associated with copious amounts of food, “giving thanks” is literally the reason it exists, providing people with a designated time to express gratitude for life’s joys and blessings.
This act of showing appreciation may extend to writing thank-you cards for gifts received throughout the year. For many, however, these rituals are the limits of practicing truly mindful gratitude. Digging deeper into this topic can go far beyond a momentary good feeling; it may actually benefit body, mind and soul.
A Grateful State of Mind
Though the concept of thankfulness has historically been the domain of philosophy and religion, gratitude has become the subject of research within the field of positive psychology. Leading the study of gratitude is Robert Emmons PhD, psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin).
Gratitude works by eliciting “other positive emotions—joy, contentment and hope—that have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system,” Emmons says. “Gratitude also buffers a person from envy, resentment and regret—emotions that are physically and psychologically harmful.”
Since thankfulness is not easily quantified, Emmons uses “gratitude journals” to help measure emotion in research participants. These journals are similar to diary entries. The writer makes a list of things they are thankful for at least three times weekly. Emmons encourages people to focus on “simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty or gestures of kindness from others.” “One woman said she has journaled for over 20 years, and has 18,172 items on her list. She never repeated the same one twice,” Emmons says. Another journal-keeper “each night listed the same three gratitudes—‘my cat, my dog and my apartment’—always in that order, for 21 straight days. The target should be a compromise between these two extremes.”
Emmons has made some striking discoveries, most notably that people who keep gratitude journals are 25% happier than those who do not. Further, they sleep a half hour more per evening, and exercise 33% more each week. Emmons acknowledges he was surprised by the conclusions. “I thought gratitude might improve mood, but not necessarily physical health,” he says.
Similarly, in a study presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Emmons, collaborating with Stefanie Greiner and Stephanie Ivie of the Mississippi University for Women, found that among 16 organ-transplant recipients, the group that kept gratitude journals for 21 days fared considerably better in mental and general health and vitality than non-journalers.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness (Penguin Press), agrees. “In my studies, I have found that gratitude leads to increased happiness, even in stressful times,” she says. Through research in which participants pen letters to people who have shown them kindness, Lyubomirsky discovered that people who express gratitude get happier because they feel “more connected and more in control.” She notes that writing isn’t the only way to express thankfulness: “If you’re artistic you might want to create a gratitude collage.”
Patricia Campbell Carlson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living (ANG*L) in Ithaca, New York (www.gratefulness.org), believes that even before offering a display of gratitude, “it helps to take a step backwards and consider where our thanks originate.” Before expressing appreciation, she notes, we should become aware that a gift has been given to us and allow wonder and joy to take hold. “This sensation overflows into thanksgiving,” she says. “Sometimes an awareness of how much we are given, moment by moment, catches us by surprise.”
Emmons agrees. “When people are grateful, they experience ‘calm energy’—they feel more alert, alive, interested and enthusiastic,” he says. “They also feel more loving, more forgiving, and closer to God. People exercise more, get better sleep and report more energy and vitality.” He notes that this even extends to people’s appreciation of their own basic physical being, acknowledging that they are “grateful for their bodies”—for the ability to see, smell, hear, taste and touch.
While the science of gratitude is a relatively young field, the findings of Emmons and other researchers have paved the way for further studies. “There is a magnetic appeal to gratitude that I underestimated,” he adds. The message of gratitude, Emmons says, “is too good and too important to be hidden in a scientific journal, accessible only to a handful of professionals.” He believes it is crucial to “communicate the value of grateful thinking and grateful living to the broadest audiences possible, showing them the tremendous difference it can make in their lives.”