Emotional Wellness Thank you

As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, take a moment to learn about why expressing gratitude can make you healthier!

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday with a complicated and problematic history, but one that still inspires many people to spend time reflecting on what they can be thankful for.  Whether we are grateful for family and friends, the availability of food and shelter, the job that we have, or the cool stuff in our houses, most of us have something we can feel gratitude about.

It turns out that not only does gratitude feel good, it’s also good for us.  Like, really, really good for us.  In May of this year, the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley published a white paper called The Science of Gratitude, where author Dr. Summer Allen, PhD, examines two decades of research on the experience of gratitude and the remarkable benefits that it can have on our physical health, our emotional well-being, our relationships, and even on social environments like workplaces.

The paper itself is fascinating, as it begins with a basic discussion of what gratitude is, using the literature to come up with a way to define the experience -- is it an emotion?  A virtue?  A behavior?  She talks about how this has led to an ability to actually develop measures of gratitude, giving the scientific community greater ability to accurately talk about the experience.

Dr. Allen then explores the origins of gratitude, noting that it is not just a “cultural construct”, but rather seems to have deep roots in our evolutionary history, our brains, our DNA, and in child development.  She discusses the research that has shown that “animals as diverse as fish, birds, and vampire bats engage in ‘reciprocal altruism’ activities --- behaviors that one animal performs to help another member of their species, even at a cost to themselves, presumably because they recognize at some instinctual level that the other individual may repay the favor at a later date.”  She goes on to say that many scientists believe that the impulse to repay generosity is a basic expression of gratitude.  Dr. Allen analyzes a number of studies that look at the neurological and developmental research on gratitude as well, suggesting that “the roots of gratitude run deep.”  She also spends a good deal of time talking about various individual, social, and cultural factors that seem to play a role in influencing a person’s tendency to experience gratitude.

As interesting as the entire paper is (and it is very long at 72 pages), the real reason that we wanted to share this with the Health4U community today has to do with the many health benefits of gratitude that have been identified.  Just take a look at what the science has found in just the last twenty years of research:

Physical Health

  • Generally speaking, a growing number of studies suggest that gratitude may make people physically healthier.
  • Gratitude may be particularly helpful for people who have suffered from, or are at risk for, some form of heart failure.
  • One longitudinal study found that higher levels of gratitude and optimism were associated with biomarkers indicating less inflammation and improved blood vessel function two weeks after patients were hospitalized for chest pain or heart attack.
  • A few recent preliminary studies have found that higher levels of gratitude may have an effect on the prevention of a number of chronic diseases, such as kidney disease and diabetes.
  • A handful of studies have found that having people increase their feelings of gratitude with a number of “gratitude exercises” can be a contributing factor in improving sleep and reducing inflammation in heart failure patients.

Psychological Well-being

  • People who have a greater tendency to respond to their surroundings with gratitude report having higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness, hope, and positive mood.  
  • A number of recent studies suggest that higher levels of gratitude may counteract burnout in the workplace.
  • Encouraging people to feel more grateful using various gratitude exercises improves people’s life satisfaction, self-esteem; alleviates symptoms of depression; increases feelings of optimism; decreases body dissatisfaction in women; and increases the trust and positive emotions felt during stressful times.
  • One study found that people who completed one particular gratitude intervention reported increased happiness six months after the week-long intervention.
  • A few studies found that for people recovering from substance use disorder, those who were generally more grateful in life displayed stronger coping strategies that helped them deal with the stresses and challenges, which resulted in increased success in their recovery.
  • There also is evidence to suggest that gratitude based therapies could help people effectively deal with traumatic experiences.

Gratitude Exercises

Since we’re all heading into this long weekend that America has set aside to, presumably, encourage us all to reflect on what we are thankful for, try some of these exercises that the researchers have developed as a way to increase our feelings of gratitude.

Three Good Things

This exercise was developed by psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues.  Write down three things that went well for you during a specific time period -- today, within the past month, over the last year.  Once you’ve done that, reflect on each one of those, one at a time, and try to identify the causes of those good things.  What made them possible?  Who contributed to them happening?  What have you learned from them?

Mental Subtraction

This is a variation of Three Good Things, but takes things in the opposite direction.  Begin by imagining what life would be like if a positive event in your life had not occurred.  Talk about this with friends or family, and encourage them to do the same.  Write down what you come up with.  Researchers called the resulting gratitude that many people feel during this exercise “the George Bailey effect,” after the protagonist in the 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Gratitude Letters and Visits

This is exactly what it sounds like.  A gratitude letter is sitting down to write a letter to someone you have maybe never properly thanked, and then personally delivering this letter to that individual. 

We hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving, from all of us here at Health4U!

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