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The Health Benefits of Gratitude

Shannon Harvey

I celebrated my 35th birthday yesterday. It had to be up there with one of the best days of my life. My two-year-old son woke me with a bright bunch of flowers and a birthday kiss. My husband made me a home cooked breakfast. I worked on my book all day and in the afternoon, I snuck away to our local beach for swim in 24-degree water (Sydney is currently in the midst a lovely long summer), after which I meditated at my favourite spot looking out over the ocean. Later that evening my parents-in-law brought around a cake they had made and my family sung me happy birthday as the sun set on our back deck.  

My life couldn’t be more different to what it was like when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. More than once yesterday I asked myself… Really? Am I really this lucky? In short, I am grateful. And this is something I work on every single day, even through life’s ups and downs, because in recent years strong evidence has emerged suggesting that gratitude is strongly related to all aspects of well being.  

I must confess that when I first started researching gratitude, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole ‘count your blessings’ thing was one of those self-help-think-positive-cuddly-kittens fads based on pseudoscience. But studies show that gratefulness is strongly linked with good physical health.  

The work of Robert Emmons from the University of California Davis in particular has garnered a lot of attention for showing that cultivating gratefulness through journaling leads to overall improved well-being, including fewer health complaints and a more positive outlook toward life. One study found that those who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.  

Positive Psychology pioneer Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania has also demonstrated that writing down three good things that happened each day for one week can increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for six months. Seligman has also shown that writing a letter to a benefactor thanking them for something and then visiting them to read the letter reported more happiness and less depression one-month later.  

Despite the compelling evidence, there are critics of this movement encouraging us to be more thankful. Best selling author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote a piece for the New York Times saying that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is “all about you, and how you can feel better.” She wrote that because the gratitude exercises being recommended by researchers often don’t involve spending money, saying anything, or taking action “the current hoopla around gratitude” is selfish.   While I’m an enthusiastic reader of Ehrenreich’s work, I think she’s a bit off base on the science of gratitude. Essentially gratitude is the practice of noticing and appreciating the positive in the world. Often it’s about appreciating the helpful actions of other people but you can also experience gratitude by focusing on what you have rather than what you don’t have, by experiencing feelings of awe when you encounter beauty, or by focusing on positive things in the present moment. When you remind yourself that life is short, take stock of each day, and notice how good you have it in comparison to others less fortunate, gratitude shifts your focus from being inwards, to being outwards. It also strengthens relationships, which I’ve written about previously is really one of the most important things to good health, longevity and well being.  In one study researchers were able to predict who would stay in their relationships and who would break up nine months later based on their feelings of gratitude towards their romantic partner. Other studies have found similar links. In a reply to Ehrenreich’s piece, The Greater Good Science Center also points out that grateful people are less materialistic, more generous, and that grateful teenagers have more positive attitudes toward their families and schools.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that gratefulness is somehow the panacea to all our health problems and psychological worries. If gratitude is merely a platitude, it can feel forced and trite. Being grateful is not always appropriate either. As University of California, Berkeley researcher Amie Gordon points out in her piece Five Ways Giving Thanks Can Backfire, gratefulness is the last thing you should be striving for in an abusive relationship or as a way to avoid serious problems. You can also mistakenly replace gratitude with indebtedness and worry yourself sick thinking about how you’re going to repay someone’s kindness.  

Ultimately when it comes to good health, I think that the effectiveness of gratitude lies in the power of perspective it gives us. Essentially it reduces stress by helping us step out of our ruminating thoughts and appreciate the good things in life, even when times get tough. It’s interesting that research shows that one of the reasons gratitude may be so good for our health is that it helps us sleep better. A 2009 study showed that mentally counting blessings before drifting off meant people had better sleep quality, were able to fall asleep faster at night, and also had less daytime tiredness. As regular readers know, I'm a big advocate of getting more sleep to improve our health.  

Comparing my life today to what it was like when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is like chalk and cheese. Although I work hard, I am no longer driven by the hourly deadlines of news journalism or the pressure cooker need to deliver that comes with network television production. I no longer feel lonely and isolated and have supportive network of family and friends. Although I’ve had set backs, as I write these words, I am the healthiest I’ve ever been and am 20 weeks pregnant with our second baby who is due at the end of July.   Life still throws regular curve balls. I still get stressed and I still worry a lot about things and people. But when times get tough, I find that gratitude is a great leveler.  

If you’re interested in trying out a gratitude exercise for yourself, here’s one used in some of the studies I’ve mentioned: For one week, each night before bed, make a list of three things for which you are grateful. That’s it.   If you want to take on Barbara Ehrenreich’s view that this doesn’t go far enough, you might also like to add an action each day to express your gratitude. Donate some money or time, bake someone a cake, call a long lost friend out of the blue, tell your partner what you appreciate about them, send a letter, or even a text message to someone who’s made a difference in your life, and simply say thank you.  

You might also be interested in checking out this online gratitude journal.

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