Thank Goodness! Being Grateful May Actually Make You Healthier

Cassie Christopher, MS, RDN, Arivale Coach
Cassie Christopher
MS, RDN, Arivale Coach

“Give thanks for a little, and you will find a lot.” – Hansa Proverb

Much has already been written about the positive psychological impacts of gratitude, including on happiness, optimism, and depression1. So, let’s focus on a less reported benefit of being grateful: improved physical health.

While more research needs to be done to fully understand the impacts of gratitude on health, preliminary findings suggest being more grateful may actually have a myriad of physical health benefits, in addition to the psychological ones.

“Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.” – John Ortberg

A 2013 survey of nearly 1,000 Swiss men and women between the ages of 19 and 84 showed participants who scored higher in gratefulness, as measured by a validated Gratitude Questionnaire, were more likely to report better physical health2. Researchers also found that higher levels of gratitude were linked to better psychological health and a greater likelihood to participate in health activities and seek help from medical professionals.

Of course, finding an association between gratitude and greater health doesn’t prove being more grateful creates better health, but it’s important to know there is a link.

Stronger trials have been done to test the impact of activities aimed at increasing gratitude on certain measures of physical health. After writing in a gratitude journal weekly for 10 weeks, randomly assigned research participants had greater optimism and fewer physical complaints and spent more time exercising then counterparts who wrote negative events or simply catalogued their week3.

In a small 2016 study of 119 healthy young women, those who wrote down three things they were grateful for three times a week for two weeks showed statistically significant improvements in sleep, well-being, and diastolic blood pressure4The improvements in blood pressure were especially surprising, as most starting measurements were in a healthy range.

“It’s so free, this kind of feeling. It’s like life, it’s so appealing.” – Beastie Boys, “Gratitude”

As previously mentioned, more research needs to be done to understand the effects of gratitude interventions on physical health, especially over the long-term and in various populations. To date, most randomized trials have been done in healthy college students and over short periods of time.

A 2016 meta-analysis of 32 studies concluded that the current research on the benefits of gratitude interventions is weak5. In particular, the analysis looked at measures of gratitude, anxiety, and psychological wellbeing and found that – at best – gratitude intervention had little effect. This meta-analysis was unable to evaluate the impact of gratitude on physical health, likely due to the small number of studies evaluating that hypothesis.

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” – Maya Angelou

While more research needs to be done to definitively prove or disprove the physical health benefits of gratitude – and how best to grow gratitude within ourselves in order to reap those benefits – it seems unlikely that gratitude is, in the words of Joseph Stalin, a “sickness suffered by dogs.” Plus, gratitude practices can be relaxing and fun.

If you’re game to add more gratitude to your life, consider trying these two practices commonly used in gratitude studies:

  1. Gratitude journaling: Write out at least three things you’re grateful for (and have not previously recognized) at least three times a week3,4. Get creative here! Beyond the typical categories of loved ones, health, and wealth, what about gratitude for experiences you’ve had in your past, physical properties like gravity, or existential concepts like free will? (It’s also perfectly acceptable to be thankful Fido wants to lick your face off when you get home.)
  2. Writing letters: Writing a letter to a person you’re grateful for and have not properly thanked can be beneficial, even if you don’t deliver it. When done weekly for three weeks, one study showed positive benefits to mental health in participants seeking counseling6. You can write multiple letters to the same person, and you may get the greatest benefit if you focus on specific things the person did, how the person impacted your life, and how you feel about the person.

So, there you have it. Whether or not further research bears out the physical benefits of being grateful, having a little bit of extra gratitude in your life couldn’t hurt – and may, in fact, do the opposite.

References

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. “Giving thanks can make you happier.” Healthbeat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier. Accessed August 17, 2018.
  2. Hill PL, Allemand M, Roberts BW. (2013). “Examining the Pathways Between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health Across Adulthood.” Pers Individ Dif. 2013;54(1):92-96.
  3. Emmons RA, Mccullough ME. (2003). “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;84(2):377-89.
  4. Jackowska M, Brown J, Ronaldson A, Steptoe A. (2016). “The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep.” J Health Psychol. 2016;21(10):2207-17.
  5. Davis DE, Choe E, Meyers J, et al. (2016) “Thankful for the little things: A meta-analysis of gratitude interventions.” J Couns Psychol. 2016;63(1):20-31.
  6. Wong YJ, Owen J, Gabana NT, et al. (2018). “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial.” Psychother Res. 2018;28(2):192-202.