Gratitude can feel like a very ephemeral practice and has certainly become a buzzword over the last few years. You can find socks, sweatshirts, apps, and bumper stickers all bearing the name of gratitude and encouraging people to practice gratitude. We even have a holiday season focused on showing gratitude (although it's been primarily co-opted into an opportunity to eat too much and spend too much money). Then, if you grew up in a family where gratitude was weaponized such as in phrases like "You should be grateful", the idea of a gratitude practice can also carry a bitter aftertaste.
Buzzwords, misguided holidays, and baggage aside, researchers are becoming convinced that having a gratitude practice has significant physical and psychological benefits. Psychologists, doctors and professional researchers have begun to acknowledge that cultivating gratitude in life can have concrete benefits for our minds and bodies.
Research on Gratitude
As with studies on mindfulness, studies on gratitude practice are becoming more frequent and the results are more and more interesting.
One study found that people who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks had significantly lower levels of triglycerides and bad cholesterol, and higher levels of good cholesterol, compared to those who did not. This has a significant impact on heart health and may indicate that individuals who keep gratitude journals are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease. While it's important to clarify that journaling itself is not keeping off cardiovascular disease, the discipline involved in keeping a daily journal may be applied to other lifestyle factors like diet and exercise and the stress-combatting effect of keeping a gratitude journal may be the causes for these interesting results.
Another review of studies on gratitude found that gratitude interventions can lead to improvements in overall physical health, including reductions in blood pressure and improved immune function.
In another study, participants were asked to keep a daily journal in which they recorded things they were grateful for; participants who did this reported decreased levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, compared to those who did not. This means individuals who were actively recording what they were grateful for were less likely to have inflammation in their bodies than those who did not.
Gratitude Improves Your Physical Health
Gratitude has also been linked to better overall physical health. One study found that people who expressed gratitude were more likely to exercise and take care of their health. This may be due to the effects of a positive mindset on self-image.
Finally, gratitude may help lower blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and other health problems but studies have shown that gratitude can help lower blood pressure. One theory is that gratitude decreases stress, and thus reduces the production of stress hormones that can raise blood pressure.
5 Health Benefits of Gratitude
1. Gratitude Can Change Pain Perception
In one study, participants with chronic lower back pain who wrote in a gratitude journal reported less pain intensity and pain interference than those who did not (Wood, Joseph, & Linley, 2008).
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who practice appreciation and gratitude consistently experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling better than people who don't.
Gratitude may help you cope with pain by acting as a distraction from negative thoughts and emotions and may be associated with a more mindful worldview that can de-stigmatize pain. Additionally, gratitude can increase pain tolerance by activating the brain’s pain-reducing pathways.
2. Gratitude Counteracts Your Negativity Bias
People have what is called a negativity bias, which is the tendency to focus on the negative and forget or overlook the positive. This negativity bias is thought to have evolved as a survival mechanism, as it’s important to be able to spot potential dangers but can cause a skewed view of reality.
The negativity bias can also lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, as we dwell on the negative aspects of our lives. Gratitude can help to counter the negativity bias and enable us to see the good in our lives.
Expressing gratitude has also been shown to reduce stress as re-wiring our negativity bias can help us to interpret stressors differently. Stress can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health. Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, obesity, and anxiety. In one study, participants who wrote about things they were grateful for experienced lower levels of stress and better sleep which effectively lowered stress as a risk factor for developing the aforementioned diseases.
3. Gratitude Helps Your Relationships
When people are grateful, they are more likely to be giving and compassionate; two qualities that are essential for maintaining strong, healthy relationships. Grateful people are also more forgiving, and as a result, are more likely to have lasting marriages and relationships where mistakes are easily overlooked and miscommunications can be remedied with less resentment.
Increased compassion, giving and forgiveness may stem from the fact that people who practice gratitude are better able to see when their needs are being met and recognize the resources available to them; allowing them to come from a place of abundance and security.
Showing gratitude at work can have a big impact on professional relationships. Employees who express gratitude are more likely to receive raises and promotions and report feeling more satisfied with their jobs.
4. Gratitude Can Help You Sleep More Soundly
A good night’s sleep is crucial for maintaining a healthy mind and body. One way gratitude can improve sleep is by helping the mind to wind down at night. When the last thing an individual thinks about before bed are positive things they feel grateful for their nervous system relaxes and it’s easier to let go of the day’s stresses and fall asleep quickly.
Good quality sleep also affects the immune system. A strong immune system is key to staying healthy and research shows that gratitude can help improve your immune system. Gratitude practices and the resulting positive benefits to the nervous system help in increasing the production of antibodies (which help fight off infection) and reducing stress; allowing for more energy to be devoted to cell regeneration.
5. Gratitude Fosters Mental Resilience
Grateful people are more likely to bounce back from difficult situations. They have an overall more positive outlook on life and view setbacks as temporary instead of permanent. This is similar to how individuals who practice gratitude interpret stressors differently. The re-wiring of our brains' negativity bias also fosters resilience.
Gratitude has been linked to a number of mental health benefits, including increased happiness, decreased anxiety and depression, and improved self-esteem. Gratitude can help you reframe your thinking and focus on the positive aspects of your life.