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.
By Jamie Diamond
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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.
Gratitude in the Face of Loss
Even in the face of tremendous loss or tragedy, it's possible to feel
gratitude. In fact, adversity can boost gratitude, recent findings show. In a
web-based survey tracking the personal strengths of more than 3,000 American
respondents, researchers noted an immediate surge in feelings of gratitude
after Sept. 11, 2001.
Why would such a tragic event provoke gratitude, and what is its impact?
Christopher Peterson, PhD, the University of Michigan psychologist who posted
the survey, attributes this surge in gratitude among Americans post 9/11 to a
sense of increased belonging. These feelings offered more than community
building. Gratitude in the aftermath of 9/11 helped buffer people against the
negative effects of stress, making them less likely to suffer from
post-traumatic stress disorder, explains Emmons.