The science behind gratitude: physical health

Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” —Zig Ziglar

Today is all about the effects of gratitude on our physical health as November, my month of gratitude, draws to an end.

The problem with gratitude and physical health is, it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The question is whether gratitude causes good health or good health causes gratitude. People who are in good health are more likely to express gratitude than those in poor health, so far so obvious. So, the big question is, if gratitude can improve the physical health of those that aren’t in pique condition. It still is a fairly new area of research and I am sure there are going to be many interesting new findings in the years to come.

 

In the science behind gratitude: well- being I already mentioned a study by Emmons that showed that students, who wrote a weekly gratitude report for 10 weeks on five blessings that occurred in that week, had fewer physical complaints (such as headaches, sore muscles and nausea etc.). Unfortunately, his other two studies couldn’t replicate these findings, but it is worth mentioning here that while the first study went for 10 weeks, the second only went for 14 days with daily reports, making it hard to compare the results. A certain amount of time may also be needed to see certain effects.

Looking a those in poor health, studies such as those by Paul Mills et al. looked at the effect of gratitude on people with severe health conditions. Paul Mills and his colleagues looked at patients with asymptomatic heart failure (HF), meaning they suffered from structural damage to their heart but showed no outward symptoms yet, nevertheless had a high risk of developing symptoms. Their study with 186 patients showed that patients with a grateful disposition (trait gratitude) sleep better, have less fatigue, more self-efficacy, less depression and lower inflammation. Depression and sleep problems are known to worsen heart failure, leading to an indirect positive effect of gratitude on well-being. They then did a pilot study with 70 patients where patients with HF kept a gratitude journal for two months with daily entries with things they were grateful for. These patients also showed reduced markers of inflammation a well as increased heart rate variability, which is considered an important indicator of heart health. HF is associated with circulating inflammatory cytokines, which can be used as markers to predict clinical outcomes, yet the exact role inflammation plays in disease progression is not yet well understood.

Most studies rely on self-reports, so participants writing down if they experience any symptoms during the study. Neal Krause et al looked at possible health effects of gratitude using the biomarker HbA1c- which is used as an indicator for blood sugar control in diabetes patients, but is also associated with an increased risk of heart failure and heart attack. The results revealed that a stronger feeling of general gratitude is associated with lower levels of HbA1c. The study failed to directly link gratitude with lower HbA1c levels; it is more likely that grateful people are more likely to engage in activities, such as exercise, that are beneficial to their health, thus resulting in lower levels.

While current research fails to directly link gratitude and physical health, grateful people report feeling healthier and it seems that there is some connection between gratitude and biomarkers, which still needs further exploring. One way in which gratitude makes us healthier is through better sleep. We can also assume that gratitude leads people to engage in behaviours that benefit their health– such as meditation, exercise and eating well, as well as showing less behaviours, such as smoking and excessive drinking, that has a negative impact. Another possibility was published this year by Brenda H O’Connell, which postulated that the effect of gratitude on physical health was mediated by lower levels of perceived loneliness and stress. Stress, as well as loneliness, has a known negative impact on our physical health in many ways.

There is still a lot we don’t know yet: how different types of gratitude might have different effects, if the target of our gratitude makes a difference, how gratitude effects our physical health on a molecular level and what effects can be seen in real time.

And while gratitude might not lead to  a clearly proven improvement of our physical health it does lead to a healthier, happier lifestyle!

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