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Monday, March 14, 2016

Gratitude Linked to Positive Emotions and Good Health

effects of gratitude on health

Studies show gratitude increases a sense of well-being and happiness, as well as boosting the immune system and heart health.

Some of us grew up with parents encouraging us to eat our vegetables by telling us that children were starving in China. In other words, be grateful that you have boiled carrots and peas to eat. We may not have made the connection when we were young, but as we grew older, many of us adopted the practice of bowing our heads and giving thanks for the food on the table.

While many religions have emphasized gratitude for centuries, research is giving the concept renewed attention by showing its many health benefits. Studies indicate that positive emotions and actions, such as happiness, optimism and being sociable, can reduce stress and therefore decrease disease and promote longevity.

Benefits of Gratitude

Many studies link grateful feelings or actions to improvements in physical and emotional health. According to research, gratitude:

  • Strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure
  • Raises levels of positive emotions
  • Creates more happiness and optimism
  • Decreases aggression
  • Reduces loneliness and feelings of isolation
  • Boosts heart health
  • Improves relationships, both with old and new friends as well as spouses/partners
  • Decreases aches and pains
  • Improves sleep
  • Increases empathy
  • Boosts sense of well-being
  • Improves self-esteem
  • Helps overcome trauma disorders

Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say boosts the immune system. Also, grateful and optimistic people tend to be healthier because they have the energy and motivation to exercise more, eat a healthier diet and get regular physical exams.

When people thank others, they are widening their circle and seeing themselves as part of a larger world. Such feelings are linked to a healthier outlook on life and better health.

Website Embraces Gratitude

There’s even a website dedicated to gratefulness. The sponsoring organization was cofounded by a Benedictine brother, David Steindl-Rast, who writes about how he learned to be grateful while growing up during World War II in Germany. ”Towards the end of the war, we had nothing to eat. We were just really starving . . . and when you have so little, you are so much more grateful for the little that you have.” He points out that poor people are usually more grateful than rich, because “their vessel is very small. The smallest thing makes it already overflow; and this sparking of life, this joy of life, is the overflow. It’s the overflowing with gratefulness and thankfulness.”

The website offers a daily question that Steindl-Rast answers, monthly Grateful News—in February reporting on the California desert blooming after a drought, the election to the British Columbia legislature of its first aboriginal female member and an Oklahoma restaurant owner who extended an invitation for a free meal to homeless people—a library of resources, a variety of sample practices and the opportunity to network with others.

Where Do You Start?

Being grateful is not always easy, especially if you are going through hard times. In fact, getting older makes gratitude more difficult because of age-related challenges: losing friends, decreasing physical abilities, worrying about money or perceiving our lives as diminished.

At this time of life, it’s even more important to focus on what there is to be grateful for: new grandchildren, a sunny day, a good meal or close friends. In fact, research has shown that people who endure major life challenges—fighting cancer, watching a loved one die or even living through 9/11—often learn to appreciate the small things. One man battling lung cancer walked out of the hospital one day and was enchanted by the song of a bird.

Even forcing yourself to be grateful can have results, experts say, pointing to a famous study in which people were told to hold a smile for 20 seconds. Even if they weren’t happy, just the physical action made people feel better.

Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, write down who or what you are grateful for. This can include small things, like someone opening the door for you at a store or restaurant. Record your appreciation for a good job, your health or a gorgeous sunset.

Thank others. This can be in the form of a thought—a silent acknowledgement of someone who has helped you—or as a note or phone call to express your appreciation.

Pray or meditate. Praying or focusing on the present moment can often engender feelings of gratitude. Many religions emphasize, often with prayers, the importance of gratitude.

Look back. Call to mind those who have helped you in the past: grandparents, a teacher, neighbor or friend you’ve lost touch with. In your life, you’ve had many encounters with people who touched you in some way. Be grateful for them.

“Grateful living is a way of life which asks us to notice all that is already present and abundant—from the tiniest things of beauty to the grandest of our blessings—and in so doing, to take nothing for granted. . . . Small, grateful acts every day can uplift us, make a difference for others, and help change the world”


“Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude,” WebMD

“Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier,” Nov. 21, 2015, New York Times

“Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude,” Greater Good Science Center

“7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude That Will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year-Round,” Nov. 23, 2014, Forbes

“10 Reasons Why Gratitude Is Healthy,” July 21, 2014, Huffington Post

“In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Mental Health Letter

Gratitude Linked to Positive Emotions and Good Health is a featured article in the March 2016 Senior Spirit newsletter.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors