Gratitude: A Natural Health Boost

Thanksgiving is more than just food, family and football. It’s an annual reminder to pause, reflect, and say “thank you” for all of life’s goodness.

But why just one day a year? Especially when we know that gratitude – like other positive mental states – supports overall health? Science has shown that gratitude can improve mental well-being, relieve stress (which itself is linked to a wide array of health problems) and even boost immunity!

Consider the study of heart failure patients published earlier this year in the journal Spiritual Clinical Practice. Specifically, the authors wanted to find out if gratitude might be “a mechanism through which spirituality may exert its beneficial effects on physical and mental health in this population.”

What did they find?

Gratitude was related to better mood and sleep, more self-efficacy, and lower fatigue and inflammation. Spiritual well-being was related to each of these as well, with the exception of the inflammatory index.

In other words, only gratitude lowered inflammation. And this is no small thing. Inflammation plays a major role in autoimmune and neurological disorders, as well as most all of the chronic – and largely preventable! – diseases plaguing Americans today, from diabetes to heart disease to periodontal disease. Controlling inflammation is a key part of preventing and controlling such conditions.

Another recent study – this in Frontiers in Psychology – looked at the type of brain activity generated when we feel gratitude. They found enhanced activity in regions associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding, moral judgment and empathy. This gives us a much richer and complex picture of gratitude.

“A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” says Fox. “The pattern of [brain] activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.”

In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

It seems obvious that gratitude is a way of connecting with others and maintaining relationships. People tend to be drawn to positivity, after all, and a grateful attitude is really a gift to others, building trust and rapport while also building them up. After all, everyone wants to feel appreciated, to feel needed, to feel like their presence and actions make a difference. Everyone wants to feel like they matter.

Each day is a new opportunity to show appreciation. Even the smallest of acts – smiling, holding a door open, saying “thank you” – make the world a kinder place. Expressing our gratitude creates a world we can be thankful for.

There are lots of great strategies for expressing gratitude. Here are a few of our favorites:

This Thanksgiving – and every day – we’re grateful for you and your support. We hope you and yours have safe travels, a festive celebration and a wonderful start to the holiday season!

What are you grateful for? How do you practice gratitude in your everyday life? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Image by Kate Ware, via Flickr