What is gratitude, and why is it important to our health?
Robert Emmons, a leading expert on gratitude, discusses it as an emotion that expresses appreciation for goodness outside ourselves. While gratitude is often spontaneous, experts such as Angeles Arrien suggest it can be cultivated to become an attitude and choice we make daily. But with everything else we have going on in our lives, why bother cultivating gratitude?
Most people are aware that “counting your blessings” is associated with improved self-esteem and optimism. Higher levels of optimism are associated with greater happiness and life satisfaction, as well as stronger interpersonal relationships. A new study looked at more than 70,000 men and women over the span of 10-30 years and found those who had higher scores on optimism questionnaires lived up to 11-15% longer. That alone is worth cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
If that’s not enough, consider the marked benefits in physical and psychological health that also exist (Berkeley White Paper). In patients hospitalized for chest pain or heart attack, a daily practice of gratitude showed biomarkers that suggest less inflammation and improved blood vessel function. Other studies reported that patients with heart failure who had higher levels of gratitude had better sleep, less fatigue and showed lower levels of inflammatory markers.
In patients with pain, higher levels of gratitude showed lower levels of anxiety, depression and improved sleep. As we know, high levels of inflammation and stress are directly associated with chronic illness. Studies are now reporting that gratitude may help with lower levels of HbA1c (a marker of glucose), and still other studies state a decrease in all chronic illness. This could be due to the fact that gratitude has a positive impact on sleep promotion as well as lower levels of inflammation in the body. In terms of stress, gratitude has been shown to reduce burnout in teachers and athletes.
Ready to start? There are many simple options. Tell one person in your life why you are grateful for them; it can be a call, text or email. Get a journal and make note of five things that you are grateful for each day. Or write down three things that went well and identify why they went well. Write a letter of thanks to someone you never thanked properly. All of these activities will increase your level of gratitude. Simply pick one option and commit to it for 21 days, and see how your outlook changes.
Dr. Jyothi Rao is a board-certified Internist with Shakthi Health & Wellness Center and a member of Columbia Association’s Medical Advisory Board.