A guest post written by Robert Clark, media spokesperson and legislative advocate for Christian Science in Florida
“Be grateful; it’s good for you,” my mom used to say.
As it turns out, scientific research supporting this simple parental directive is piling up.
Dr. Michael McCullough at the University of Miami and Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis have been researching the health benefits of gratitude for well over a decade now.
From their landmark 2003 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
“In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.”
“In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.”
Emmons tell us: “Scientists are latecomers to the concept of gratitude. Religions and philosophies have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue and an integral component of health, wholeness, and well being.”
A husband and wife team from Texas, Drs. Blair and Rita Justice, have done parallel research. Blair Justice is professor emeritus of psychology at The University of Texas School of Public Health. Rita Justice is a psychologist in private practice in Houston. In November 2007 they co-authored an article in the UT Health Leader titled “Gratefulology”. They reported the following:
- “How about the healthy heart benefit? University of Connecticut psychologist Glen Affleck’s research showed that the explanation a person fashions for why he or she has had a heart attack has implications for future cardiac health. He and colleagues at the Department of Community Medicine and Health Care found that cardiac patients who blamed their heart attacks on others were more likely to suffer another heart attack within the next eight years. On the other hand, perceiving benefits and gains from an initial heart attack, including becoming more appreciative of life, was related to a reduced risk for subsequent attack.”
- At the University of Pittsburgh, a study of 119 heart transplant patients found “thankfulness and appreciation as an aspect of religious faith was positively related to their perceived physical and mental health at one year post-transplant.”
The Harvard University Medical School newsletter from November 2011 included an article titled “In Praise of Gratitude.” Prefacing its list of practical suggestions were these words of wisdom, “Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack.”
The newsletter reports that thankfulness grows stronger with practice, and includes these suggestions:
- Write thank you notes to others and to yourself.
- Thank someone mentally.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Count your blessings.
I’ve found that many of these ideas resonate in my life. Considering what I’m grateful for and reflecting on divine provision has often made me feel better, mentally and physically.
A few years ago I had a colleague whose husband passed on suddenly and unexpectedly. She took some time off and when she returned to work we all noticed in her a remarkably deep sense of peace. She seemed completely undiminished. In fact she seemed stronger, her joy more deeply rooted than before.
When asked about this she told us that she had kept a “gratitude journal” during her time at home. Her first entry was short, only acknowledging gratitude for being able to breathe and eat. At first her arms felt like lead as she reached for her journal. But as the habit of daily gratitude took shape, she began to look forward to time with her journal.
At the end of several weeks her entries had become much fuller and extended way beyond her own gradually diminishing grief. She began to notice new things in her neighborhood to be grateful for. And then stories in the local news she could appreciate. After that, national and global events began to offer her reasons to be grateful.
The daily discipline of being grateful brought about a gradual and deep change in her perspective. And it healed her grief.
As scientific research on the link between gratitude and health accumulates, empirical evidence may prove what our own experience has already shown us: practicing gratitude is a great way to be and stay healthy. And what better time of year to give it a try.
Bob Clark is a Christian Scientist and health columnist from Belleair.
This post was written for The Miami Herald.