FEATURE | Posted Nov. 25, 2015

Gratitude is good medicine

Practicing gratitude boosts emotional and physical well being

Photo: Keeping a diary of things you’re grateful is an easy way to reap the health benefits of a gratitude practice
Starting a gratitude practice can be as easy as listing what you’re grateful for at the beginning or end of each day.

A growing body of research is confirming that an ounce of gratitude is worth a pound of cure.

“The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude.

“It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide,” he said.

Practicing gratitude also affects behavior. Studies have shown that 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 – factors that translate into a healthier and happier life.

Gratitude works

Emmons believes gratitude works because it allows individuals to celebrate the present and be an active participant in their own lives. By valuing and appreciating friends, oneself, situations and circumstances, it focuses the mind on what an individual already has rather than something that’s absent and is needed, he said.

A person’s mindset also affects the body’s biochemistry, especially factors related to heart disease.

“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness.”
— Robert Emmons

Gratitude is associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, both at rest and in the face of stress. It also has been linked with higher levels of heart rate variability, a marker of cardiac coherence, or a state of harmony in the nervous system and heart rate that is equated with less stress and mental clarity.

Gratitude also lowers levels of creatinine, an indicator of the kidney’s ability to filter waste from the bloodstream, and lowers levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of cardiac inflammation and heart disease.

“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Emmons said. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.”

Emmons believes a successful gratitude practice starts with recognizing what you’re grateful for, acknowledging it and appreciating it. He recommends establishing a daily journaling practice to remember gifts, grace, benefits, and things enjoyed.

“Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable life theme of gratefulness,” he suggests.

Emmons is founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of the books Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity and Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

The science of gratitude:

  • Keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent) in health-care practitioners.
  • Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).
  • Practicing gratitude led to a 7-percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure.
  • Two gratitude activities (counting blessings and gratitude letter writing) reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over a six month period.
  • Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25 percent when people are keeping a gratitude journal.
  • A daily gratitude practice can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration (as measured by a 9 percent increase in verbal fluency) that occurs with increasing age.
  • Grateful people have 16 percent lower diastolic blood pressure and 10 percent lower systolic blood pressure compared to those less grateful.
  • Grateful patients with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure were 16 percent less depressed, 20 percent less fatigued and 18 percent more likely to believe they could control the symptoms of their illness compared to those less grateful.
  • Older adults administered the neuropeptide oxytocin showed a 12 percent increase in gratitude compared to those given a placebo
  • Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88 percent of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94 percent of them.
  • Grateful people (including people grateful to God) have between 9-13 percent lower levels of Hemoglobin A1c, a key marker of glucose control that plays a significant role in the diagnosis of diabetes.
  • Gratitude is related to a 10 percent improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76 percent of whom had insomnia, and 19 percent lower depression levels.

Related stories and resources:

Expressing gratitude, UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services

Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.