What would happen if we extended the tradition of giving thanks, typically celebrated just once a year during the holiday season, throughout the entire year? Such gratitude would be rewarded with better health, say researchers.
No pill? No strict diet or exercise regimen? Can just a positive emotion such as gratitude guarantee better health? It may be a dramatic departure from what we've been taught about how to get healthier, but the connection between gratitude and health actually goes back a long way.
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"Thousands of years of literature talk about the benefits of cultivating gratefulness as a virtue," says University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons. Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have extolled gratitude as a virtue integral to health and well-being. Now, through a recent movement called positive psychology, mental health professionals are taking a close look at how virtues such as gratitude can benefit our health. And they're reaping some promising results.
Benefits of Gratitude
Grateful people -- those who perceive gratitude as a permanent trait rather than a temporary state of mind -- have an edge on the not-so-grateful when it comes to health, according to Emmons' research on gratitude. "Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations," Emmons tells WebMD.
It's no secret that stress can make us sick, particularly when we can't cope with it. It's linked to several leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer, and claims responsibility for up to 90% of all doctor visits. Gratitude, it turns out, can help us better manage stress. "Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress," Emmons says.
Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say boosts the immune system. "There are some very interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function," says Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. In one, researchers comparing the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students under stress found that, by midterm, students characterized as optimistic (based on survey responses) maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared with their more pessimistic classmates.
Optimism also has a positive health impact on people with compromised health. In separate studies, patients confronting AIDS, as well as those preparing to undergo surgery, had better health outcomes when they maintained attitudes of optimism.