7 ways thankfulness boosts your health

Excerpt: Feeling gratitude and expressing appreciation have a positive impact on your physical and mental health because these emotions and attitudes lower stress, foster strong social connections, and encourage a healthy lifestyle. Studies show thankfulness strengthens and heals the heart, increases empathy, and eases depression. A grateful disposition also bolsters immunity, improves sleep, and promotes healthy habits.

As we launch into Thanksgiving, research indicates that feeling grateful and showing appreciation for the people and positive aspects of life doesn’t just make you feel good, it’s good for your health.

Why does thankfulness have such a positive impact on your health? Researchers suggest the health benefits may be due to a combination of key factors: gratitude’s stress-buffering ability, its role in fostering and strengthening social connections, and a grateful disposition may lead people to engage in behaviours and lifestyles that keep them healthy,* says University of California, Berkeley.

Here are some important ways in which thankfulness can boost your health:

  1. Strengthens and heals your heart. A study in The American Journal of Cardiology found appreciation improves heart rate variability, an indicator of good heart health.* Healthy women who kept a gratitude journal also lowered their blood pressure*, reported a University College London study. In addition, people with asymptomatic heart failure who had a grateful disposition experienced less fatigue, less systemic inflammation, and had more confidence to take care of themselves,* reported a University of California, San Diego study. Thankfulness may even help patients recover from a heart attack, according to a Psychosomatic Medicine study, which reported grateful people had improved blood vessel function two weeks after the event compared with less grateful patients.*
  2. Increases empathy and life satisfaction. Thankfulness enhances empathy and reduces aggression,* according to Psychology Today. Studies in Emotion and Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences found grateful people were more empathetic and happier.* These studies also showed gratitude and empathy are linked to the same brain region—the medial prefrontal cortex—which is involved in self-reflection, memory, and emotional processing.*
  3. Improves physical health. People who were more thankful reported fewer headaches, respiratory infections, and stomach problems,* according to a Personality and Individual Differences study. A Portland State University study also found that people who received thanks had fewer headaches and healthier eating habits, which helped to prevent stress-related illnesses.*
  4. Eases stress and depression. People who feel and show gratitude get more social support, which lowers stress and depression,* reported a Journal of Research in Personality study.
  5. Bolsters immunity. Women who showed gratitude and were supportive to others strengthened their immune systems and showed lower levels of inflammation in blood tests,* according to a study in Emotion.
  6. Boosts sleep. People with insomnia who kept a daily gratitude journal for a week improved their sleep,* reported a study by researchers at Alberta’s Grant MacEwan University. MRI scans suggest gratitude may improve sleep by increasing activity in the region of the brainstem that creates the brain chemical dopamine, which helps modulate sleep and wakefulness,* reported a Cerebral Cortex study.
  7. Promotes healthy habits. People who wrote for 10 consecutive weeks about experiences they were grateful for during each week—rather than daily irritations or things that had displeased them—exercised more and made fewer visits to physicians,* according to Harvard Medical School.

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

  1. University of California, Berkeley. “Is gratitude good for your health?” (2018), online: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_gratitude_good_for_your_health
  2. The American Journal of Cardiology. “The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability.” (1995), online: http://www.laskow.net/uploads/5/7/6/4/57643809/the_effets_of_emotions.pdf
  3. University College London. “The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep.” (2015), online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25736389/
  4. University of California, San Diego. “The role of gratitude in spiritual well-being in asymptomatic heart failure patients. (2015), online: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/scp-0000050.pdf
  5. Psychosomatic Medicine. “Associations between psychological constructs and cardiac biomarkers after acute coronary syndrome.” (2017), online: Associations Between Psychological Constructs and Cardiac Bi... : Psychosomatic Medicine (lww.com)
  6. Psychology Today. “7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude.” (2015), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude
  7. Emotion. “Gratitude and the brain.” (2020), online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333760428_Gratitude_and_the_brain_Trait_gratitude_mediates_the_association_between_structural_variations_in_the_medial_prefrontal_cortex_and_life_satisfaction
  8. Psychology Today. “Are empathy and gratitude linked to each other?” (2020), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/comfort-gratitude/202010/are-empathy-and-gratitude-linked-each-other
  9. Personality and Individual Differences. “Mediating effects of loneliness on the gratitude-health link.” (2016), online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916303038#:~:text=Gratitude%20significantly%20predicted%20improved%20physical%20health%20symptoms.%20This,has%20experienced%20unprecedented%20growth%20in%20the%20past%20decade.
  10. Medical Express. “Research shows that expressing gratitude improves physical and mental health.” (2019), online: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-03-gratitude-physical-mental-health.html
  11. Journal of Research in Personality. “The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: two longitudinal studies. (2008), online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656607001286#:~:text=In%20Model%202%2C%20gratitude%20leads%20to%20higher%20levels,increase%20gratitude%20have%20a%20causal%20influence%20on%20well-being.
  12. Emotion. “Exploring the role of gratitude and support-giving on inflammatory outcomes.” (2019), online: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-47329-001
  13. University of California, Berkeley. “Does practicing gratitude help your immune system?” (2021), online: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_practicing_gratitude_help_your_immune_system
  14. Grant MacEwan University. “Effects of constructive worry, imagery, distraction, and gratitude interventions on sleep quality: a pilot trial.” (2011), online: https://iaap-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x
  15. Cerebral Cortex. “The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI.” (2008), online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18502730/
  16. Psychology Today. “How to change your attitude to improve your sleep.” (2014), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201404/how-change-your-attitude-improve-your-sleep
  17. Harvard Medical School. “Giving thanks can make you happier.” (2021), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier