Being thankful. It can be challenging when times are hard. From conflict in the office to world-scale drama, it’s often easier to focus on what’s getting you down than what’s lifting you up. Yet research suggests that cultivating a regular practice of gratitude could have health benefits that improve your whole life.
The Science of Gratitude
The power of gratitude has intrigued scientists for many years. In 2003, psychologist Robert Emmons led a study to try and understand if gratitude impacts physical and mental well-being. The research looked at the well-being of people undergoing life difficulties, those with neuromuscular disease, and how different groups responded to cultivating a grateful outlook on life.
The participants who adopted gratitude exhibited “heightened well-being” compared to the control groups.[i]
Why is this?
Summer Allen, Ph.D., suggests that gratitude “…has deep roots that are embedded in our evolutionary history, our brains and DNA, and in child development.” She highlights gratitude as a “social glue” that connects the individual to the positive influences around them, helping strengthen relationships of all types, from romantic to workplace.[ii]
Gratitude is more than a feeling, and taking the time to focus on the positive aspects of your life brings benefits beyond happiness.
How Gratitude Impacts Physical Wellness
Fast forward 15 years from Emmons’ initial study, and there’s a wealth of research available replicating the positive results of gratitude. An interesting one from 2018 focused on the direct link between gratitude and physical health in 607 adults. Brenda O’Connell and Mary Killeen-Byrt were interested in the mechanisms of how gratitude provided better health outcomes.[iii]
Like Emmons, they recorded improved physical health in their participants across a range of symptoms. They concluded that gratitude reduces feelings of loneliness by providing stronger bonds between people. It also reduces stress, which has serious negative consequences for physical health if left unchecked.
Stress causes the body to produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that, in some cases, can be beneficial. For example, a burst of cortisol could help you focus better for short periods of time. However, when that stress is constant, these hormones start to cause wear and tear on the body. This can cause an increased risk of:
Insomnia or other sleep issues
Pain and inflammation
The American Psychological Association also points out that the coping mechanisms people adopt to cope with stress, for example, smoking or drinking, also bring negative consequences for physical health.[iv]
Gratitude may also help lower blood pressure and reduce fatigue, helping you feel more energized and physically capable of achieving more.
Mental Health Benefits from Gratitude
Of course, health is about more than just the physical. You’ve already seen that gratitude helps stave off loneliness, so it should come as no surprise that adopting a more grateful outlook on life has genuine health benefits for your mind as well as your body.
One reason for this is that gratitude helps redress what’s known as the negative bias. This is the human tendency to focus on the things that are going wrong, the challenges, the obstacles, or the things we want to change. When your mind is filled with things that make you unhappy, it’s hard to find the space to concentrate on the things you’re grateful for.
However, if you make the effort to do just that, you prompt your brain to release serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are associated with “good” feelings like happiness and motivation and can actively help stave off feelings of low mood and anxiety.
One study collected data from 79 nurses and found that those who practiced gratitude regularly had fewer sick days, felt less exhausted, and actually enjoyed their jobs more.[v] Gratitude could be a powerful tool to help bolster your mental health and your resilience to everyday challenges in all aspects of life.
Incorporating Gratitude into Your Daily Life
So, how do you go about adopting a more grateful outlook? As you’ve seen, humans aren’t necessarily hardwired to be grateful, and it can be all too easy to focus on the negative. Try these exercises to cultivate the health benefits of gratitude in your life.
A Gratitude Jar:
Take any clean jar and place it somewhere prominent with some notepaper and a pen. You can decorate the jar if you want. Every time you feel grateful for something, write it on a piece of paper and put it in the jar. When times are tough, take your jar, open it, and read all the things you’re grateful for.
Every evening, write down at least three things you’re grateful for. This could be on a beautiful notepad or your phone—what matters is that you’re really thinking about those feelings of gratitude and the people or situations associated with them.
Letting People Know:
Expressing gratitude to others can be more powerful than simply feeling it as it helps strengthen relationships and bonds. Plus, you get to share those positive feelings and give someone else a good day! Send a message, make a phone call, or hug your kids—make sure the people around you know you appreciate them.
Leaders who let their teams know they’re grateful for their work can boost workplace morale while improving their own health and well-being. Even saying thanks to a colleague for help on a project helps cultivate gratitude in your life.
Making a Long-Term Positive Change
There are so many ways to express your gratitude for the things that make you happy. If you practice being thankful regularly, you could actually reinforce neural pathways in your brain that make gratitude easier over time. The health benefits of this could last you a lifetime, and you’ll also benefit from improved relationships and a more positive outlook on life in general.
[i] Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life; Emmons and McCullough, 2003
[ii] The Science of Gratitude; Summer Allen, Ph.D., John Templeton Foundation, 2018
[iii] Brenda H. O’Connell & Mary Killeen-Byrt (2018) Psychosocial health mediates the gratitude-physical health link, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 23:9, 1145-1150, DOI: 10.1080/13548506.2018.1469782
[iv] How stress affects your health, APA, 2022
[v] Virtues, work satisfactions and psychological wellbeing among nurses