Health Benefits of Gratitude
- "Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” ~ John Henry Jowett, 1863–1923
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This page will discuss what we know about the health benefits of gratitude.
By now you have no doubt heard of the benefits of gratitude. Nearly every religion from Buddhism to Christianity teaches gratitude as one of its major tenets, and most of us have been taught to be grateful by our parents as part of our childhood lessons.
But did you know that gratitude can actually have an impact on your physical health?
- Studies on health benefits of gratitude have clustered around four areas. Heart health, stress and inflammation, sleep and pain perception.
What is Heart rate variability ( HRV)?
(HRV) is the variation of time intervals between heartbeats. We have devices that can get very specific about how we measure this, and we will measure HRV to determine the impact of certain interventions on the heart and stress level.
Sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves carry signals to the heart and brain.
They play a role in stress.
Parasympathetic nerves slow heart rate
Sympathetic nerves speed the heart rate.
Studying HRV allows us to understand whats going on in the body.
A 1995 study demonstrated that people feeling appreciation or gratitude have improved HRV. Improved HRV is associated with a healthier heart. This now- famous study became the foundation for the research between our quest for our understanding of the health benefits of gratitude.
Although studies often set out to determine that gratitude played a more specific and bigger role in heart health were not as conclusive as they hoped, some studies on gratitude interventions have shown that:
- blood pressure drops after keeping a gratitude journal
- a group participating in a gratitude intervention demonstrated a higher degree of cardiac coherence ( coherence=equilibrium = healthier heart)
- a group that participated in a gratitude intervention reported increased parasympathetic heart rate variability (healthier heart functioning and less stress).
Stress and Inflammation
In a sample of patients who had heart disease, who participated in a gratitude intervention, blood was extracted before and after and measurements for stress and inflammation were examined. The group receiving the gratitude intervention showed a reduction in inflammation, another study showed a similar result.
Why? It has been theorized that reductions in the sympathetic nervous system activity might be responsible for the enhanced inflammatory response that gratitude seems to cause. Reduced inflammation is also seen when experiments are done that manipulate social support. Gratitude has been shown to increase prosocial behavior and seems to be related to the mammalian care giving response. Self compassion has a similar mechanism!
Gratitude interventions have been shown to improve sleep. Sleep quality improves when participants engage in an 8 week gratitude journaling intervention before bed. It's suggested that this works by reducing pre sleep arousal. When falling asleep, grateful people are less likely to think negative and worrying thoughts, and more likely to think positive thoughts. It appears that worry and negative thoughts impair sleep, and gratitude reduces the likelihood of such thoughts, and increases the likelihood of positive thoughts, protecting and improving the quality of sleep.
In one study, college students who perceived receiving intentional help interpreted the pain as less intense. Another study reported different and conflicting results. This is an area still being investigated.
We know people who are Naturally grateful have healthier habits of caring for themselves. For example, people who have heart attacks who are grateful are more likely to follow doctors advice and exercise and care for themselves, obviously resulting in more favorable outcomes. But a recent study seemed to indicate that we could create healthier habits by having someone who is not naturally grateful participate in a gratitude intervention. A group of teens who participated in a gratitude intervention were shown to have adopted healthier eating habits after completing the intervention!
While we know people naturally grateful people are healthier both mentally and physically, the question of whether we can consistently make people healthier and happier by implementing gratitude interventions remains unanswered. Studies across all areas have remained mixed and are not always replicated, but, the interventions are so simple, that it seems like it might be promising.
Every spiritual tradition espouses the benefits of gratitude. The body and the mind are not separate. Why not pick up a gratitude practice and see if it helps you.
Leave Health Benefits of Gratitude for Gratitude Journaling
Health Benefits of Gratitude Resources
- Moieni, M Fritz, Megan M., et al. “Gratitude Facilitates Healthy Eating Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 81, 2019, pp. 4–14., doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.08.011.
- Irwin, M., Haltom, K., Jevtic, I., Meyer, M., Breen, E., Cole, S., & Eisenberger, N. (2019). Exploring the Role of Gratitude and Support-Giving on Inflammatory Outcomes. Emotion, 19(6), 939-949.
- Lilian Jans-Beken, Nele Jacobs, Mayke Janssens, Sanne Peeters, JenniferReijnders, Lilian Lechner & Johan Lataster (2019): Gratitude and health: An updated review, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888
- Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(1), 43–48. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002