Neuroscience research tells us that demonstrating gratitude, and feeling grateful, aren’t just socially appropriate – they’re good for our health.
Gratitude not only gives us that warm peaceful feeling inside, it also boosts our immune system, naturally relieves stress, improves our sleep, relieves depression, reduces our pain perception, and energizes us to keep contributing – hence, it enhances our resilience.
If I could pick out the one main theme from the L.D. Pankey Alumni Association Meeting from last weekend, it was clearly gratitude. Gary Takacs talked about it, Mary Osborne did as well, along with Lee A. Brady, and many, many others.
It’s a wonderful thing to know that what you are doing is morally right, spiritually right, and technically right, but here are a couple more interesting truths:
Gratitude = A more healthy body.
Grateful people = Happy People
It turns out that something as simple as writing a thank-you note is a powerful way to stay healthy, because it’s good for our brain and body.
The hypothalamus in our brain is considered to be a “master gland,” as it has a massive level of influence over how our entire body functions, including appetite, digestion, sleep, thermoregulation, metabolism, growth, and our immune system.
A 2009 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed that our hypothalamus activates when we feel grateful, and floods our brain with dopamine, which then caused us to feel better as well as want to repeat the behavior. Hence, when we are truly grateful we reward ourselves with naturally good feelings.
Additionally, we feel less physical pain as our limbic system -where emotions are processed, and where the hypothalamus is located – modulates how we experience it.
In a 2003 study called “Counting Blessings vs. Burdens”, ill patients were required to keep gratitude journals. And as a result, 16% reported reduced symptoms, while 10% reported decreased levels of pain. It also showed that participants were more willing to exercise, and were therefore far more motivated to participate in their recovery.
Gratitude increases the quality of our sleep, as it decreases the time it takes to fall asleep as well as lengthens the duration of it. The hypothalamus is the location of the suprachiasmic nucleus which is responsible for processing light levels from the eyes, and then stimulating -or not- the pineal gland to release melatonin. Since gratitude activates the hypothalamus when we are grateful, it becomes easier for us to fall into deep, healthy, natural sleep as our anxiety level drops while our melatonin levels rise.
High quality sleep is essential and therefore its presence-or lack thereof- influences everything else in the body. Thus:
Gratitude = Sleep = Health
And better sleep means less anxiety and depression, as well as a more effective immune system.
In a 2007 study of the benefits of gratitude, patients with hypertension were made to count their blessings weekly and then their vital signs were monitored. The analyzed data showed a 10% decrease in systolic blood pressure.
In another study by McCraty in 1998, the relationship between gratitude and cortisol were evaluated. Subjects were encouraged to cultivate appreciation, and as a result 23% showed a decrease in blood cortisol, and 80% showed improvement in heart rate variability -a direct result of a hypothalamus responding to gratefulness.
Numerous studies on the benefits of gratitude practices have shown that keeping a gratitude journal, or writing and sending thank-you notes, can increase our long-term happiness by more than 10%. A 2005 study also showed that keeping a gratitude journal decreased depression by more than 30% for the duration of that study.
Additionally, other research has demonstrated that anxious and depressed participants of a gratitude letter writing experiment, demonstrated different neurologic patterns in their brains when f- MRI’s were used to compare their brain functioning to non-participants. The difference was brought about by changes in how their medial prefrontal cortex functioned (they were better at managing negative emotions, and more willing to be helpful, empathetic and kind), once again objectively linking gratitude with emotional stability and healthy pro-social behavior.
Finally, gratitude research has repeatedly shown that thankful people have higher energy levels, are more relaxed, are happier and healthier.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if gratitude makes us healthier due to the “power of positive thinking”, or because the dopamine in our brain is setting off chain reactions which then ignite physical benefits. The bottom line is that an “attitude of gratitude” benefits our bodies, minds and souls.
It’s understandable that we sometimes feel we have less to be thankful for in these challenging social, political, and economic times, but perhaps the real reason why we feel that way is because we aren’t saying thank-you often enough.