Joy, gratitude and purpose: Three keys to healthy aging

Excerpt: Cultivating gratitude is good for physical health, promotes better sleep and protects people from stress and depression. Savouring even the smallest of joys daily lowers the risk of heart attack, angina and stroke, helps people cope with arthritic pain, and reduces frailty in older adults. People who live with a purpose, setting meaningful goals, take better care of themselves and add years to their life.


The holiday season is a time to embrace gratitude, celebrate even the smallest of joys, and reflect on the people and things that give meaning and purpose to your life. Research shows how cultivating gratitude, joy and purpose in daily living contributes to better physical, emotional and mental health, and greater longevity.

Gratitude boosts sleep and lowers stress

Older adults who are grateful experience better physical health, in part because they participate more in healthy activities and are more willing to seek help for health concerns,* according to a Personality and Individual Differences study. Gratitude also helps people sleep better and longer, reported a Journal of Psychosomatic Research study. Grateful people are less likely to have negative and worrying thoughts before sleep, which tend to impair sleep.*

Gratitude helps protect people from stress and depression as well, particularly during life transitions, because it fosters social support,* according to a Journal of Research in Personality study. Practicing gratitude daily is associated with lower blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol and higher good cholesterol, improved immune function, and higher rates of medication adherence,* according to University of California, Davis.

Joy strengthens your heart

A study of over 1,700 Nova Scotia women and men found those who experienced more joy in their lives had a substantially lower risk of heart attack or angina,* reported European Heart Journal. Joy is also linked to longer life. Older adults were up to 35% less likely to die over a five-year period if they were happy, excited and content,* according to a University College London study.

People with positive attitudes who had painful knee arthritis walked many more steps each day than those who were less happy,* according to an Arthritis Care & Research study. Joy has a protective effect in reducing or delaying the onset of frailty in older adults,* reported a Psychology and Aging study. Happiness also lowers the risk of stroke in seniors,* according to Psychosomatic Medicine.

Purpose adds years to life

Carleton University researchers found that people who lived with a purpose, setting goals that directed their day-to-day activities, lived longer than their counterparts,* regardless of the purpose. Having a sense of meaning and purpose promotes better physical health, reported a Review of General Psychology study, by reducing stress, improving coping and encouraging healthy behaviours.* People take better care of themselves because they feel their lives matter more,* the researchers said.

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*The following sources are references for this blog, in order of appearance:

1. Personality and Individual Differences. “Examining the pathways between gratitude and self-rated physical health across adults.” (2013), online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3489271/

2. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. “Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions.” (2008), online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399908004224

3. Journal of Research in Personality. “The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress and depression: Two longitudinal studies.” (2008), online: https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/npb/people/rtg/pdf/GratitudeLongitudinalWood2008.pdf

4. UC Davis Health. “Gratitude is good medicine.” (2015), online: https://health.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2015-2016/11/20151125_gratitude.html

5. CTV News. “Happy people have lower risk of heart attack: study.” (2010), online: https://www.ctvnews.ca/happy-people-have-lower-risk-of-heart-attack-study-1.484923

6. Science. “Happiness associated with longer life.” (2011), online: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/10/happiness-associated-longer-life

7. Arthritis Care & Research. “When it hurts, a positive attitude may help: The association of positive affect with daily walking in knee OA: the MOST study.” (2013), online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410957/

8. Psychology and Aging. “Onset of frailty in older adults and the protective role of positive affect.” (2004), online: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/pag-193402.pdf

9. Psychosomatic Medicine. “Emotional well-being may lower risk of stroke.” (2001), onlinehttps://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-03/CftA-Ewml-2103101.php

10. BBC News. “Sense of purpose ‘adds years to life.’ (2014), online: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-27393057

11. Review of General Psychology. “A meaningful life is a healthy life: A conceptual model linking meaning and meaning salience to health.” (2018), online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1037/gpr0000115