"Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease." - Hippocrates, ancient Greek physician, ca. 4thcentury BCGratitude means thankfulness, counting your blessings, noticing simple pleasures, and acknowledging everything that you receive. It means learning to live your life as if everything were a miracle, and being aware on a continuous basis of how much you've been given.
Gratitude enhances the human experience of life and implies a sense of present moment acceptance of conditions and circumstances as they are. When we see the world with gratitude, we develop a sense of awe about life and its blessings: hassles lessen and stress is reduced. Even more importantly, research shows gratitude improves health and wellbeing.
There is no doubt that gratitude is a key element in building good health and can enhance our psychological and physiological wellbeing (1,2,3). By being grateful you improve your health and wellbeing. Gratitude has strong links with mental health; numerous studies suggest that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression (4) and to be healthier. Being grateful is also associated with improved immune system function, fewer aches and pains, and lower blood pressure. Gratitude predicted greater subjective sleep quality and sleep duration, and less sleep latency and daytime dysfunction (5).
When you make a conscious effort to move toward the gratitude end of the spectrum, you'll notice that you feel better. Research shows that levels of serotonin (known as the "feel good" chemical in the brain) increase and your immune system is stimulated when you carry out an act of kindness or giving. You get the same effects if you observe an act of kindness or giving. That is why people who give get pleasure or, as the Bible says, "Give, and it will be given to you." The opposite is also true; greed and continually taking leads to increased dissatisfaction, disharmony and poor health. Physiologically, greed lowers serotonin and compromises your immune system.
Quantum physics and biology have shown us that neural networks in our brain are able to rearrange themselves according to the emotions we feel and the experiences we have on a daily basis. When we focus on gratitude, our neural networks will adapt to actually provide more of the positive chemicals that can help increase the positive emotions brought about by gratitude.
American researcher Dr Candice Pert found that what we think creates the biochemical basis for how we feel - she uses the term "the molecules of emotion" to describe this. Literally, focusing on positive thoughts creates positive molecules of emotion in our brain - no drugs required.
Other research has also shown that gratitude and kindness increase your wellbeing and life expectancy. Altruism reduces our focus on ourselves and appears to serve as a distraction from worries, whereas preoccupation with our selves leads to anxiety and depression by increasing our concentration on our own problems.
Researcher George Vaillant (6) followed two cohorts of American men - graduates of Harvard College and men who grew up in inner city Boston - for 68 years and found altruism to be one of the major qualities enabling subjects to cope with the stresses of life. It also helps us live to longer lives.
In other research, a 10 year study of 2,700 Americans who volunteered with community organisations were found to have much better longevity than those who didn't volunteer. They were two and a half times less likely to die from any cause compared to the control group. Helping others also seems to result in a boosted immune system, fewer colds and headaches and better sleeping habits. Perhaps giving is the secret to a long, happy and healthy life?
In Vaillant's research, two of the four critical personal qualities he identified for living longer were: future orientations, defined as the ability to anticipate, to plan and to hope; and capacity for gratitude and forgiveness, "capacity to see the glass of life as half full, not half empty."
Vaillant's research also shows that our priorities change as we age and pass through various growth cycles. Our focus becomes less about ourselves and more and more about others, our community and the environment. As we evolve, we're prepared to be more generous (though there are some individuals who get caught up in the "me" cycle and never grow out of it). Our sense of happiness seems to go hand in hand with this development, despite the fact that we experience more health problems and more bereavement as we age. We are more satisfied with what we have and our need to acquire more is reduced.
Research has shown that gratitude reduces the risk of mental illness. In one study investigating links between religiosity and gratitude with associated risks for psychiatric disorders and substance use, researchers found the risk for both internalising (major depression, phobias, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder and bulimia nervosa) and externalising (nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, drug abuse or dependence, and adult antisocial behaviour) disorders reduced with increasing gratitude. Gratitude also has a positive effect on reducing the effects of stress, with older women more likely than elderly men to feel grateful to God and therefore experience the greatest benefits of the "stress buffering properties of gratitude" (7). The findings are clear: optimism, gratitude, being proactive, and embracing lifelong learning and change produce healthier, happier, and more successful people who live longer and recover from illnesses better (8).
Research has clearly demonstrated that feeling grateful promotes positive reframing of negative situations (10), increases life satisfaction (11) and subjective wellbeing. Indeed, happy people tend to be grateful people (12) and grateful people tend to be happier people (9). Moreover, expressing gratitude intensifies our positive feelings when we are the beneficiary of kindness, for example, receiving a gift (12).
In a study on men with prostate cancer, gratitude emerged as an important aspect of spirituality which made it easier to cope with cancer (13). Participants believed that "cancer can be caused by psychological factors including life stressors, negative emotional patterns and the inability to heal from the past." These negative psychological causes could then be counteracted by gratitude and other positive patterns of thinking. In a study of the spirituality of terminally ill patients, gratitude was an element of communion with a "higher being" and showed enhancement in the patients' quality of life (14).
Gratitude can help us move beyond failures and also overcome crises. Research shows that gratitude makes it easier to cope with a cancer experience, post-traumatic stress and acute crises (15,16,17,18). In a study of Vietnam War veterans with and without post-traumatic stress disorder, the veterans with "dispositional and daily gratitude" showed increased hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing (3) (a contented state of being happy).
In a study of crisis and US college students' emotional responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, positive emotions such as gratitude provided a mental "breather" and acted as a "restorer" of cognitive and physiological functioning in crisis times of acute stress (18). They proposed a "broaden and build" model whereby positive emotions broaden the mind, expand the attention and build personal resiliency resources, resulting in improved wellbeing while experiencing extreme stress and afterward.
Gratitude is not only a coping mechanism resorted to during crisis, but also can be a lifeline. It causes increases in parasympathetic myocardial control (19), therefore lowering the risk of heart attacks.
Most importantly, overwhelming research has shown that gratitude can be introduced into your life through many mechanisms, including journaling. Three consecutive studies specifically designed to measure the psychological and physiological results of manipulating gratitude revealed that the "gratitude condition" groups were more engaged in life, gave their life experience a higher rating, had greater expectations for the future, exercised more, were more likely to give and receive support from others and had fewer physical symptoms of ill health (1). So start your gratitude journal today.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate.
He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
References:Emmons and Crumpler 2000Emmons and McCullough 2003Keeva 2005McCullough et al. 2004Wood et al. 2009Vaillant 2002Krause 2006Brickley 2001Lyubomirsky et al. 2005Fredrickson 1998Langston 1994Watkins 2004White and Verhoef 2006Chao 2002White and Verhoef 2006Giltay 2006Kashdan 2004Frederickson et al. 2003McCullough and Tsang 2002
Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.