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Counting Your Blessings: How Gratitude Improves Your Health

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By Bruce Campbell

Gratitude has long been extolled by religion and in recent years, has drawn attention through books such as The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude. Now, thanks to new research, there is scientific evidence that gratitude produces health benefits.

The research is summarized in Robert Emmons' book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Emmons and his colleagues at the University of California at Davis are among the pioneers in research on gratitude, part of a larger movement called positive psychology.

Positive psychology, instead of focusing on illness and emotional problems, studies health-promoting behavior and the pleasurable parts of life.

Emmons' book reports on several studies. In the first, he and his colleagues divided participants into three groups, each of which made weekly entries in a journal. One group wrote five things they were grateful for. Another group described five daily hassles and a control group listed five events that had affected them in some way.

Those in the gratitude group felt better about their lives overall, were more optimistic about the future, and reported fewer health problems than the other participants. Results from a second study suggested that daily writing led to a greater increase in gratitude than weekly practice.

A third study reproduced the results among a group of people suffering from various neuromuscular diseases, including post-polio syndrome, which has symptoms similar to those in ME/CFS. People using daily gratitude journals reported more satisfaction with their lives and were more optimistic about the future than the control group.

Interestingly, the gratitude group also reported getting more sleep, spending less time awake before falling asleep and feeling more refreshed in the morning.

In a related study, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that gratitude can have a protective effect against heart attacks.

Studying people who had experienced one heart attack, the researchers found that those patients who saw benefits and gains from their heart attack, such as becoming more appreciative of life, experienced a lower risk of having another heart attack.

The research on gratitude challenges the idea of a "set point" for happiness, a belief that, just as our body has a set point for weight, each person may have a genetically-determined level of happiness.

The set point concept is supported by research that shows that people return to a characteristic level of happiness a short time after both unusually good and unusually bad events.

But the research on gratitude suggests that people can move their set point upward to some degree, enough to have a measurable effect on both their outlook and their health.

Summarizing the findings from studies to date, Emmons says that those who practice grateful thinking "reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits."

People who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.

Emmons conclusion is that gratitude is a choice, one possible response to our life experiences.

Getting Started

If you would like to increase the level of gratitude in your life, here are five suggestions for getting started.

1) Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal

This is probably the most effective strategy for increasing your level of gratitude. Set aside time daily to record several things that you are grateful for. (Typically, people list three to five.)

You can write when you get up or at the end of the day. Pick a time that you will consistently have available. You can use a book like the Journal of Gratitude or write on loose-leaf paper or a notebook.

The important thing is to establish the daily practice of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events and to write them down. In Emmons' words, the act of writing "allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life."

For an example of the use of a gratitude journal, see Joan Buchman's article The Healing Power of Gratitude.

2) Use Visual Reminders

Two obstacles to being grateful are forgetfulness and lack of awareness. You can counter them by giving yourself visual cues that trigger thoughts of gratitude. Emmons says he puts Post-It notes listing his blessings in many places, including on his refrigerator, mirrors and the steering wheel of his car.

Another strategy is to set a pager, computer or iPad to signal you at random times during the day and to use the signal to pause and count blessings.

3) Have a Gratitude Partner

Social support encourages healthy behaviors, because we often lack the discipline to do things on our own.

Just as you may be more likely to exercise if you have an exercise partner or participate in a class, you may be able to maintain the discipline of gratitude more easily if you have a partner with whom to share gratitude lists and to discuss the effects of gratitude in your life.

Emmons says, "If we hang out with ungrateful people, we will ‘catch' one set of emotions; if we choose to associate with more grateful individuals, the influence will be in another direction. Find a grateful person and spend more time with him or her."

4) Make a Public Commitment

We feel accountable when we make commitments to others. In our self-help course, we have people set weekly goals for themselves. The fact that the goal is made publicly to a group, makes it more likely that people will follow through. 

5) Change Your Self-Talk

We all carry on an inner dialogue with ourselves that is often called "self-talk." When this inner conversation is negative, our mood is usually low. Research has shown that we can change our mood by changing the tone of the things we say to ourselves.

For an introduction to this approach, called cognitive therapy, and a description of a three-step process to change your self-talk, see the article "Changing Self-Talk" (reference below).

Related Articles

  • The Healing Power of Gratitude
    FMS patient and self-help group moderator Joan Buchman's account of the life-transforming effects of a daily gratitude journal.
  • Changing Self-Talk 
    A introduction to Cognitive Therapy, describing a three-step process for making your self-talk more accurate and more positive.

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