We learn to say “thank you” at an early age.
When you say it, do you really mean it or is it just politeness and habit? Neuroscientists have found that if you really feel it when you say it you will be happier and healthier. The regular practice of expressing gratitude is a facet of the human condition that reaps true benefits to those who really mean it.
Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami published a study in 2015 that looked at the physical outcomes of practicing gratitude. One third of the subjects in the study were asked to keep a daily journal of things that happened during the week for which they were grateful. Another third was asked to write down daily irritations or events that had displeased them. The last third of the group was asked to write down daily situations and events with no emphasis on either positive or negative emotional attachment. At the end of the 10-week study, each group was asked to record how they felt physically and generally about life.
The gratitude group reported feeling more optimistic and positive about their lives than the other groups. In addition, the gratitude group was more physically active and reported fewer visits to a doctor than those who wrote only about their negative experiences.
Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.
Of course, studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect. However, most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Managers who remember to say “thank you” to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.
Other research into the physical effects of gratitude reports health benefits of regularly expressing gratitude. Focusing on the positive and feeling grateful can improve sleep quality and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, levels of gratitude correlate to better moods and less fatigue and inflammation, reducing the risk of heart failure, even for those who are susceptible. In a recent study patients completed standard psychological tests so researchers could assess the patients’ levels of gratitude and spiritual well-being at baseline. Higher levels of gratitude were found to be associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and less inflammation, a factor that worsens with the progression of heart failure. The study was able to find an association between feeling grateful and improved heart health markers, however, it was not designed to prove that feeling grateful actually caused the improvements. After the original cross-sectional study was completed, the researchers then sought to find out if prospectively introducing a gratitude intervention would show benefit in these patients, and whether feeling grateful actually led to improvements in heart health. In this study, patients were randomized to keep a gratitude journal for eight weeks where they were instructed to write down three things for which they were most grateful for on a daily basis. These patients were compared to a group that was treated with the standard protocol. This interventional study showed that keeping a gratitude journal seemed to help heart health even more.
“We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they journaled. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” study author Paul J Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, said in a journal news release.
“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health,” he concluded.
The answer as to why gratitude is so impactful to health and well-being lies within the brain. In a neurological experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, brain activity was measured using magnetic resonance imaging as subjects were induced to feel gratitude by receiving gifts. The areas of the brain showing increased activity were the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex—those associated with moral and social cognition, reward, empathy, and value judgment. This led to the conclusion that the emotion of gratitude supports a positive and supportive attitude toward others and a feeling of relief from stressors.
Gratitude also triggers activity in the hypothalamus, which impacts metabolism, stress, and various behaviors. The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain and regulates hormones responsible for many critical functions, such as body temperature, emotional responses, and survival functions like appetite and sleep. One of the neurochemicals associated with the parts of the brain affected by gratitude is dopamine, a pleasure hormone.
When times are difficult, or stress is high it may be a challenge to be grateful. A few ways to implement gratitude are:
- Write a thank-you note: Make it a habit to send or hand deliver one thank-you note each month. It can be to express gratitude for something someone has done for you, or just let someone know what his or her friendship has meant to you
- Do a daily journal and list at least three things for which you are grateful. Many people feel that is best completed first thing in the morning or at night before you fall asleep.
- Take a moment each day to think about what you like about yourself. Often people get into the habit of negative thinking about themselves and forget to focus on what we like.
- Try to tell someone in your life everyday what appreciate about him or her.
- Meditate: Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).
Taking some time each day to implement gratitude into your life can pay off by giving you a happier and healthier future.
- Emmons, R.A. (2016). The Little Book of Gratitude: Create a Life of Happiness and Well-Being By Giving Thanks. London: Gaia.
- Ng M-Y, Wong W-S. The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Health Psychology. 2013;18(2):263-271. doi:10.1177/1359105312439733