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Family & Relationships

Gratitude is Good for Your Health. Let Us Count the Ways.

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Being grateful doesn’t just make you a more pleasant person to be around. It actually has physical and emotional benefits.

Robert Emmons, PhD., who is the director of the Emmons Lab at University of California, Davis, studies gratitude, its causes and its effects. Emmons is also the author of a number of gratitude-centric books, including Thanks! How Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.

As Thanksgiving approaches, Emmons took the time to answer our questions about gratitude, why it’s important—and why we should help it spread. We're grateful for his insights. 

Get Old (GO): If there's one message you want people to know about gratitude, what is it?

Robert Emmons (RE): That gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance. Gratitude drives positive outcomes in every domain of life that has been examined. The grateful mind reaps a massive advantage. So you literally cannot overplay the hand of gratitude. Fortunately, the practice of gratitude is readily accessible. It is available to everyone. We can literally produce gratitude at almost any moment in our lives. This is part of its appeal. We can always say, what is this situation offering me right now, that I can be grateful for? What importunity exists in the current moment? Bam! Gratitude revealed.

GO: What are the potential impacts that gratitude could have on a person's health and well being?

RE: Omigosh there are so many. Suffice to say that gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives. Gratitude works! Here are some examples:

  • Keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28%) and depression (16%) in health care practitioners.
  • Gratitude is related to 23% lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).
  • Practicing gratitude led to a reduction in biomarkers of inflammation (7%) 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% over a six-month period.
  • Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25% when people are keeping a gratitude journal.
  • A daily gratitude practice can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration (as measured by a 9% increase in verbal fluency) that occurs with increasing age.
  • Grateful people have 16% lower diastolic blood pressure and 10% lower systolic blood pressure compared to those less grateful.
  • Grateful patients with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure were 16% less depressed, 20% less fatigued and 18% 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% increase in gratitude compared to those given a placebo.
  • Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88% of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94% of them.
  • Grateful people (including people grateful to God) have between 9-13% 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% improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76% of whom had insomnia, and 19% lower depression levels.

GO: Can a person simply make the conscious decision to be more grateful and then expect to see changes in their life?

RE: Yes, but it may be even more important to make a conscious decision NOT to be ungrateful or resentful or entitled. The opposite of gratitude is entitlement. Instead of counting blessings, we keep (even unconsciously) a mental list of the ways in which life continually disappoints or a list of reasons why we deserve the good things that are happening to us. Gratitude helps us see that we are the recipients of much more than we are entitled to, an attitude of entitlement says it’s never enough. The entitlement attitude says, “life owes me something,” or “people owe me something,” or “I deserve this.” It comes from a focus on the self rather than others. In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful. Nip ingratitude in the bud, and you will make the road to gratitude an easier downhill coast.

GO: Are there common mistakes that people make in terms of gratitude?

RE: Yes, they focus on trying to get more gratitude. It becomes a self-improvement project. The biggest problem that gets in the way is inside of us—our own attitudes, our own self-focus on how we are doing, preoccupation with our performance. The best solution, the only solution is outside—a focus on others doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. So trying hard to be grateful can be counterproductive. It’s counterintuitive. Gratitude, by its very nature, is an external focus. It’s about receiving a gift or benefit from a source out there. It’s about other people doing things for us that we could never do for ourselves, it’s about noticing the good, taking in the good and giving back the good. Self-forgetfulness promotes gratefulness, and is the primary reason that gratitude produced benefits. This totally turns gratitude inside out.

GO: Any tips you can share on how to invite more gratitude into your life?

RE: There is practically an entire industry devoted to gratitude journaling. For me, it comes down the following three facets that I have called “aware, declare and share.” First, pay attention to or become aware of our benefits. Psychological research has shown that translating thoughts into concrete language (i.e. words, whether oral or written) has advantages over just thinking the thoughts. It makes them more real, more concrete, helps elaborate on them. Expression, or declaring and sharing with others, is also essential. Exchanging e-mails with a partner is a good way to accomplish the same thing. Having a "gratitude-accountability partner" can keep us focused and committed to the disciplined practice of gratitude journaling. We also need to get specific. The truth is in the details. So instead of trying to become, say, more grateful overall (which can be overwhelming), we start small. Ask yourself, have I received any unexpected benefits from my job? Would I be where I am today without having my job? What would my life be like if I had not met (fill in the blank) at work? Then do the same with home, relationships other domains of life.

To learn more about Emmons' work on gratitude visit emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gratitude-and-well-being.

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