9 Unexpected Health Benefits of Gratitude Practice

Health Benefits of Gratitude Practice

What, if any, are the health benefits of gratitude practice?  Many religions and philosophies teach us that we should develop an attitude of gratitude.  However, for many, this idea that we should develop an attitude of gratitude is nothing but a platitude.  It can be very frustrating when you suffer from a serious physical or mental illness and some well-meaning, but misguided friend or acquaintance advises you to “count your blessings” while you are in excruciating pain of one form or another (so, do not be that well-meaning, but misguided associate). Nevertheless, despite how trite and simplistic such advice might at first seem, surprisingly, there has been a lot of scientific research on gratitude that proves the many health benefits of gratitude practice.


What is the meaning of gratitude, anyhow?

After hearing about the health benefits of gratitude, you might start to realize that you are not even sure what gratitude is.

What is the meaning of gratitude?

Dr. Robert Emmons, of UC Davis, is one of the leading experts in the emerging science of gratitude.   As a result of his extensive scientific research on gratitude, he has concluded that gratitude has two main parts:

  1.  Gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness.”  To develop an attitude of gratitude is to acknowledge that there is good in the world.  We recognize the gifts and benefits that have been bestowed on us in our lives.
  2. Dr. Emmons explains that the second part of gratiitude is a recognition that this goodness comes from forces outside ourselves.  There are other people, or higher powers (for those who are spiritual), who gave us gifts, large and small, to assist us in manifesting the positive elements in our lives.

health benefits of gratitude

Dr. Emmons and others view this social dimension as crucial to the definition of gratitude.  Particularly, gratitude strengthens relationships specifically because it makes us consider how other people have provided us with support and affirmation.


Why is the concept of gratitude really irritating to some of us (at least initially)?

Unless you have had your head in a bucket of sand all of your life, chances are good that you have heard of at least some of the health benefits of gratitude before.  However, let’s look at your life.  Maybe it’s awesome.  Maybe, it is, as the Jack Nicholson character, Melvin Udall, in “As Good As it Gets,” says, full of “great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad… a lot of people, that’s their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you’re that pissed that so many others had it good.” (By the way, if you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend that you stop reading this article, clear your schedule for the next couple of hours, and watch it now.  You’ll thank me later.)

Here’s the clip I am referring to:

But, I digress.  My point is that if yours wasn’t the “good times, noodle salad” sort of life, you probably are annoyed that some people had it so easy while you didn’t.  Maybe you grew up poor, sick, abused, or “different” from your peers in any way.  Maybe you still are.  And that is what makes the whole concept of gratitude irritating, grating, trite, and upsetting.

An acknowledgement of goodness in the universe at all, let alone from people in your life, might seem like a cruel joke, depending on who you are and what you have been through.  That is what I find irritating about gratitude at first glance, and, if I am honest, at second glance also.  However…

The scientific research on gratitude converted me

In particular I read a study by Bryan, Young, Lucas, and Quist (2018) that converted me.  (How can a paper be published in 2018 when it is still only 2017 as I write this?  That is a mystery for another day…)  The paper was called, “Should I say thank you? Gratitude encourages cognitive reappraisal and buffers the negative impact of ambivalence over emotional expression on depression.”  
Here is my summary of the paper in “plain English”:

The Catch-22 of someone who is AEE: “I want to express my feelings, but if I do, bad things might happen.”

What the paper said was this: It is known that, often, depressed people are conflicted about expressing their emotions.  On the one hand they want to express themselves, and on the other hand, they are worried that if they do show their feelings, bad things might happen.  Scientists call this “ambivalence over emotional expression” or AEE for short.  The authors theorized that if depressed people with this quality of AEE practiced gratitude, it might make them less depressed.  Why?  Because gratitude allows the depressed people to respond appreciatively and with kindness and therefore lets them view a situation in a more positive way.  This would, in turn, reduce the symptoms of depression.


The longer you avoid expressing your feelings, the harder it is to get along with people and the less resilient you get.

The paper went on to say that research shows that when people ignore or avoid expressing emotions for a long period of time, they have difficulty getting along and effectively dealing with conflict.  This is partly because they are constantly overanalyzing the emotions that people say they are feeling as well as their own emotions.
Furthermore, they often have poor coping strategies in response to stressful life events and depression.  In other words their resilience goes down.  This in turn can trigger even more confusion and conflict about whether (and how) to express emotions.  Because of this, they lose out on developing personal relationships and social support networks which could otherwise have been very beneficial coping mechanisms for bolstering psychological health.


Gratitude to the rescue

What the researchers ultimately found was that gratitude helps people overcome many of the social problems related with AEE.  This is because it offers increased life satisfaction, a decrease in material desires, and is important to maintaining the structure of social relationships.  It turns out that gratitude reduces depression, particularly in those who are high in AEE (i.e. who are reluctant to share their most intimate emotions with others).

You can get the health benefits of gratitude from something as simple as writing a letter.

The gratitude that people show can be as simple as writing a letter to express gratitude to others.  This letter can be written to:
  • another individual,
  • society in general, or
  • for people who are more spiritual, to a higher power.

Gratitude really changes your brain.  Inside.  Scientists took before and after photos.

Another study, by Kini, Wong, McInnis, Gabana, and Brown (2016) showed that gratitude had visible effects on brain scan images.  I found that interesting because it suggests that gratitude is more than just an “irritating” suggestion from people who are well meaning, but possibly clueless.  Rather, it has tangible effects on the brain, on our actual neurology.

Science says, “Gratitude good.  Write a letter, say thank you, and feel better.”

There are many more scientific papers on gratitude.  And I have to confess, the science of it has won me over.  I know some of you are probably shaking your heads at me and saying that you knew it all along, but I was very skeptical about how something as seemingly trivial as writing a letter of gratitude on a semi-regular basis could have a lasting impact on the brain and on significantly reducing depression and other serious mental disorders.

9 Unexpected Health Benefits of Gratitude

It turns out that gratitude is good for more than just depression and mental health.  Here are some of the mental health and health benefits of gratitude that you might not have expected.  There are other benefits too like social benefits and so on, but, for now, we will discuss the health benefits.


Here they are:
  1. Reduction in Depression – I already went through this one in detail.
  2. Overall improvement in mental health
  3. Improved quality and duration of sleep
  4. Lower blood pressure
  5. An increased desire to exercise (and all the health benefits that come from exercise)
  6. Increased energy level
  7. Decrease in physical aches and pains
  8. Increased resilience 
  9. Increased ability to relax (decreased stress)

Books about Gratitude

Gratitude Works! A 21 Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity by Robert Emmons – Gratitude Works is a must read! It is written by Robert Emmons, who is the world’s leading gratitude researcher.  He offers a science-based perspective for how we can use the power of gratitude to transform our personal and professional lives.



The Gratitude Revolution: How To Love Your Life and Be Inspired By The World Around You by Laura Moreno
Each chapter ends with a simple gratitude exercise so that you can put theory into practice while the messages are still fresh in your mind. “By the end of The Gratitude Revolution, you will understand why you are how you are, how to love what you can’t change, how to change what you don’t love, and how to start living the kind of life you deserve.”

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks is a prominent neuropsychologist who has written many interesting and compassionate books about psychological conditions including “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”.  In this short (64 page) volume of essays, he describes his experience of dying and his gratitude for the gift of life.

“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
—Oliver Sacks


A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life by John Krawlik – The memoir of a man who changed his life by writing a thank you note every day for a year. He describes the many ways in which this literally changed his life.  This sounds fascinating.


Conclusion

I didn’t go into very much detail about each of the health benefits of gratitude.  There have been papers written to support each one.  In some cases many papers were written.  However, the point is that gratitude is significantly helpful in improving your mental health, physical health, and also your social wellbeing although I only touched on that briefly.

Furthermore, the form of the gratitude can be very simple.  You could, for example, just keep a gratitude journal in which you write three things you are grateful for each day.  Alternately, as was suggested earlier, you could write letters, which you can send or not (as you choose) that express your gratitude to other people, society, or a higher power.

What was surprising to me, and what I think is significant, is that an exercise that takes so little time and relatively little energy can have such far-reaching consequences on the brain and on the body.  It made me realize that gratitude is a powerful force, and that all of us should probably be using gratitude in our daily lives.  However, especially people who are having mental and physical health concerns should try out this practice.

It seems counterintuitive because if you are suffering, you might think, “Hey, why the hell should I be grateful?”  But the answer is that the gratitude itself will help ease your suffering.  Will it work for you?  There’s only one way to find out.  However, isn’t it worth putting in the effort on the off chance that it might work, given all the research that has shown how helpful it can be?  Ironically, I was not convinced prior to writing this article, but now I am, and I am going to give it a solid try and find out what changes happen in my own health.  And then I will get back to you.  I will be your guinea pig.

Meanwhile, you can be our guinea pig too.  Let us know in the comments if you have tried this and how it has worked out for you, good or bad.

You might also be interested in:

References

Bryan, J. L., Young, C. M., Lucas, S., & Quist, M. C. (2018). Should I say thank you? Gratitude encourages cognitive reappraisal and buffers the negative impact of ambivalence over emotional expression on depression. Personality & Individual Differences120253-258. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.013

Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. W. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage1281-10. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.040


health benefits of gratitude

One Comment:

  1. Thank you for such great work! Your post is valuable! With gratitude you can start your transformation. It will change your way of thinking, your attitude about yourself, others, life and the future. There is such a power in that. Thank you for the book list, also. All the best!

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