It is hard not to feel overwhelmed, especially a year into a global pandemic. If we are not worrying about how to stay safe, we are worrying about all of the changes brought on by the covid-19 virus – uncertainty, it seems, has creeped into every part of our lives.
While cynicism may be quickly becoming the new norm, a study published last year by the American Psychology Association, challenges us to think different; according to researchers, gratitude doesn’t just benefit our psychological health, but our heart health as well.
Professor Paul Mills and his team from the University of California-San Diego studied 186 men and women with asymptomatic heart failure to see how their sense of thankfulness and gratitude affected their overall health.
Not only did they find that patients who expressed higher levels of gratitude had less depression, anxiety and insomnia – but they also discovered that these patients had lower levels of inflammation and better overall heart health.
“That was a lovely surprise,” Mills said. “Based on past literature, we thought people that had more gratitude would have a better sense of well-being, but we didn’t expect to see changes in the biology as well.”
This study did not surprise Professor Robert Emmons from the University of California-Davis and the author of the popular book The Little Book of Gratitude.
“Gratitude is good medicine,” Emmons said. “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure and improve immune function … grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and have higher rates of medication adherence.”
But how do we define gratitude?
Emmons defines gratitude as “a trait, a state, an attitude, a way of coping, and a virtue all rolled into one. Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”
Perhaps trickier than defining gratitude, is actually practicing it : “Busyness, forgetfulness and a sense of entitlement all diminish possibilities for gratitude,” said Emmons, who suggested that people “take life ‘as granted’ rather than ‘for granted.’ Instead of saying ‘I have to do this’ try saying ‘I get to do this.’ Sense that you are lucky or graced rather than deserving of good fortune. Repeat the phrase to yourself ‘I am gifted.’ ”
Mills suggests a more concrete approach : writing it down. As part of his study, he asked participants to keep a journal of things they were grateful for, including their health, their relationships with people they care about, and the activities they enjoy doing. He suggests, that the more things we can identify, the more our perception of well-being is changed – after a while, people become so grateful they no longer need to write down how they feel.
“Gratitude journaling can lead to a more permanent transformation in a person’s mind and psyche,” Mills said. “They sense gratitude more continuously and then they stop journaling because they’ve made the transition — they’ve changed how they view their moment-to-moment life and the world around them.”