Thursday, November 26, 2015

Health Effects of a Thankful Attitude and Practical Tips for Being Grateful

Health Effects of Gratitude
As many in the United States are celebrating Thanksgiving today, I began to reflect on how being thankful might play a role in improving health. Can an attitude of gratitude help one enjoy a healthier lifestyle? How might we incorporate being grateful into our daily lives?

Study Results Looking at the Benefits of Gratitude

Numerous studies have found that being grateful may improve one's health. If people choose to be thankful, they may enjoy more positive emotions, improve approaches to adversity, and build better relationships. Gratitude may create an environment in which we become better connected to other people, nature, or experience a more meaningful spiritual relationship with a higher power.

A study by Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough at the University of Miami divided participants into three different groups. Each group was directed to write a few sentences each week regarding events that had happened that week: one wrote about things for which they were grateful, another about the week's irritations, and the third about events without a directive to remain positive or negative. Results of the study found that the group that focused on being grateful enjoyed a more optimistic attitude and tended to feel better about their lives. The thankful group also exercised more and enjoyed fewer doctor visits than the group that focused on aggravations.

Additional studies found similar positive results related to adopting a thankful attitude. People who take the time to give thanks may also eat a healthier diet and seek regular physical examinations. They may have better methods of coping with stress and may tend to be more optimistic. Optimism is associated with improved immune function.

Dr. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania led a study in which subjects were instructed to write and personally deliver a thank you note to someone whom had never been properly thanked for a kindness. Happiness scores were significantly higher for the thankful group when compared to the control group with resulting positive effects lasting a month.

Studies looking at relationships found that couples who consciously express gratefulness for one's partner felt more positive about him or her. Interestingly, those same people also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about the relationship, perhaps leading to a deeper, more genuine connection.

University students who had trouble falling asleep because they were bombarded with thoughts before bedtime found that a daily gratitude intervention helped them to quiet their minds and sleep better. Those interventions were administered via email.

One study looked at subjects who had heart failure without symptoms. Results indicated that gratitude and spiritual well-being were associated with better mood, better sleep, and less fatigue. Subjects who reported gratitude and spiritual well-being also tended to have stronger beliefs in their ability to complete tasks and reach goals.

Another study at the University of Pennsylvania looked at work relationships. Both study groups were asked to solicit donations from alumni. The director of the campaign specifically told one group that she was grateful for all of their efforts before starting the campaign. The group that was thanked made 50% more calls than the group that did not receive the pep talk, indicating that employees who are thanked may work harder than those who are simply expected to work without any recognition.

Perhaps one important concept to becoming more grateful is to turn one's attention from self, which may lead to feelings of despair and depression as a response to challenging life circumstances, to focusing on others, which may lead to feelings of hope. As we begin to share our feelings of gratitude for what others have done for us, others might also express thankfulness for something we have done. Perhaps being grateful is a win-win situation.

Tips for Living a Thankful Life

Thank others
  • Write thank you notes. Taking the time and effort to write a personal note, get a stamp, and mail it may make the thank you more meaningful.
  • Thank people in person or on the phone. Be sincere.
  • Begin to notice all the things we might take for granted and give specific credit to those people who are instrumental in helping us - this might be things the person currently does or things he or she did in the past.
Utilize additional ways to express thankfulness
  • Write a journal of thankfulness. The journal does not have to be fancy - a small notebook or computer document will suffice. A few sentences each week might be associated with positive benefits lasting longer than a week. If you have trouble sleeping due to racing thoughts, try writing an entry in your gratefulness journal each night before bedtime.
  • Draw a thankfulness picture, using an art style that appeals to you.
  • Write poems about being thankful. Explore different poem styles.
  • Sing songs that focus on being thankful.
  • Write things for which you are thankful on pieces of paper and place them in a box or jar. You might refer to these during tough times or review them on a regular basis, perhaps at the end of a season or year.
Mentally give thanks
  • Offer specific prayers of thanks.
  • Incorporate a mindset of looking at the present moment in order to discover something for which we are thankful, incorporating various senses and remembering past blessings during those times when being thankful does not come naturally.
Additional Articles
  • Digdon, N. and Koble, A. (2011), Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3: 193–206. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x
  • Heubeck, Elizabeth, Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude, WebMD article accessed on 11/26/2015.
  • Miller, Michael Craig MD, The Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude, Harvard Commentaries on Health (Aug 2013).
  • Mills, Paul J. et. al., The Role of Gratitude in Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients, Integrative Medicine 14.1 (Feb/March 2015): 51.

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