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Gratitude: Why it matters

Scientifically, being thankful has been linked to better mental and physical health. Read what researchers have discovered about the positive power of giving thanks.

 

A few years ago, Carla White got a call that changed her life: Her father had died suddenly of a heart attack. She’d already lost her dream job in the dot-com bust, and her startup business was tanking. She lost sleep, gained weight, dulled her depression with tequila and chocolate, and contemplated suicide. It seemed she had nothing to be thankful for. So she started a gratitude journal.

“What surprised me was how quickly my life changed in just two months,” she said at the recent AltConf event for tech developers. She became happier and healthier, received job offers and launched the wildly successful Gratitude Journal App to spread the gift of gratefulness.

It almost seems too easy—and too cheesy. At first blush, gratitude has the emotional flavor of rice pudding: sweet and mushy. But speak to psychologists, and you’ll find a plenitude of evidence supporting gratitude’s power to propel positive change in the mind, body and relationships.

The Science of gratitude

“I like to think of gratitude as fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience,” says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, and author of Gratitude Works!

Numerous studies have shown gratitude magnifies joy, social connectedness and self-efficacy. Emmons says study participants who keep gratitude journals report feeling more alive, alert and energetic.

Gratitude is also linked to physical benefits, such as stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure and reduced fatigue. Gratefulness correlates with lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac problems, according to a 2015 study from University of California, San Diego. “A more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and... gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health,” states lead researcher Paul J. Mills, Ph.D.

In addition, thankfulness boosts our “psychological immune system,” making us more resilient to stress. “Gratitude short-circuits the stress response,” Emmons says. “People who employ grateful thinking bounce back faster following a stressful event because finding blessings in misfortune is incompatible with fear and anxiety.”

Gratitude also works retroactively to reframe our past. In research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, participants were asked to recall a negative memory that still troubled them. One group was told to write about how they might feel grateful for the experience. That group reported fewer intrusive emotions, such as guilt or resentment, plus a greater sense of closure.

The practice of gratitude

In her poem "Three Gratitudes," singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer writes, “Every night before I go to sleep/I say out loud/Three things that I'm grateful for/All the significant, insignificant/Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life./It's a small practice and humble/And yet, I find I sleep better/Holding what lightens and softens my life/Ever so briefly at the end of the day.”

Whether it’s speaking aloud, keeping a journal or writing in an app, gratitude only gains power when it’s translated from fleeting thoughts into concrete language.

If you’re going through a difficult time, cultivating gratitude does not mean ignoring your suffering, Emmons says. It means intentionally focusing on other things you’re grateful for, and finding redeeming qualities in the struggle.

For example, after a breakup, your knee-jerk reaction might be to lament the lack of love in your life. Choosing gratefulness might mean being thankful for the love you do share with friends and family, and reframing the split as a difficult experience that’s made you stronger and better able to identify compatible partners.

A new habit such as gratitude must be practiced for 45 days until the brain rewires itself into the new normal, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals. Just as exercise builds muscle, practicing gratitude builds gray-matter density in brain regions associated with gratefulness, so your thoughts more naturally flow toward gratitude.


"Ask your brain to do algebra every day, and it gets better at algebra. Ask your brain to give thanks, and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for." – Robert Emmons, Ph.D., author of Gratitude Works!


Remember to express your gratitude to others, verbally or in writing. Psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., studied various gratitude practices and discovered the method that most enhanced happiness was visiting people and reading them a letter thanking them for their kindness.

But grand gestures aren’t necessary. Doing nice things for one’s partner does not necessarily increase satisfaction in a relationship, but expressing gratitude for those nice things does—for both the giver and the receiver—found researchers at the University of North Carolina.

“Gratitude for everyday interpersonal gestures can be a powerful mechanism for relationship growth,” according to lead researcher Sara Algoe, Ph.D.

Thankfulness motivates

Despite the scientific evidence, the concept of gratitude can make improvement-oriented people bristle. They may think that if they focus on reasons to be content, they’re resigning themselves to an uninspiring situation. But surprisingly, gratitude does not cause complacency.

Emmons and his colleagues asked study participants to identify six personal goals, and then told some of them to keep a gratitude journal. After 10 weeks, those who practiced gratitude by writing in their journals made 20 percent more progress toward their goals than those who didn’t keep a journal.

Grateful people practice more pro-social behaviors, such as generosity, compassion, charitable giving and drawing on others’ support to make positive changes, according to research published in the psychology journal Motivation and Emotion.

"Gratitude is incompatible with inactivity, passivity and hopelessness," Emmons says. "Gratitude motivates, inspires and energizes."