The Relationship Between Gratitude and Health

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The Relationship Between Gratitude and Health

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By Jan Larraine Cox, Lifestyle’s health columnist

“Reflect upon your present blessings—of which everyone has many, and not on your past misfortunes, of which we all have some.” London author Charles Dickens said this in the mid-1800s. Sound familiar? Parents often urge gratitude in their children, starting at a young age. 

And Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who was born a slave in Rome and was banished to Greece during the first century A.D., famously said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” 

These are timeless thoughts which thankfully have been preserved through the ages so that we can appreciate and relate to them today, when we need them so much. 

How gratitude helps your health

Focusing on the positive and feeling grateful can have many physical health benefits. To name a few: improved sleep quality, lessened inflammation and fatigue and increased physical activity.   

Gratitude can also provide psychological health benefits by reducing feelings of anxiety, stress and other toxic emotions. By increasing the positive influence of an event, gratitude can lead to increased pleasure hormone levels.  Better feelings of well-being lead to less depression and better resilience to trauma. 

Prior to the pandemic, 78% of Americans reported feeling a strong sense of gratitude at least once a week during a survey of American religion and spirituality.  Other studies showed that “gratitude promotes regular heart rhythms, rebalances hormones, reduces stress, increases relaxation, and promotes resistance to common illnesses,” says author Diana Butler Bass, in her book called “Grateful.” 

Image from Diana Butler Bass website.

Bass continues to say the link between gratitude and the heart is so pronounced, gratefulness can be described as a “strength of the heart.” 

Lower levels of anxiety, decreased panic attacks and phobias, reduced risk of alcoholism and substance abuse all lead to longevity.  More attention to pleasure and contentment over envy, brings good memories to an individual. 

Researcher Robert Emmons summarizes gratitude benefits to include, “self-esteem and will power, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality, boosted creativity, and having a unique ability to heal, energize and change lives.” 

At its deepest level, gratitude isn’t about what we have in life. Rather it’s about embracing what we are, what our life story is. 

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said “When people lack gratitude, something is missing in their humanity.  People can almost be defined by their attitude toward gratitude…Every hour is grace.” 

Image from NBC News

To feel grateful together as a community moves us from “me” and my opinions toward “we” and the good of “our” community, says Diana Bass.  She continues, “Communal gratitude might heal our civic heart, putting us on a path toward a new future of national emotional health and well-being.” 

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt found evidence that, “People really do respond emotionally to acts of moral beauty, and these beneficial acts cause others to want to copy them and spread the positive feelings.” 

Image from Pexels

In other words, patriotism can be positive unless it becomes tainted by dominance of one group over another, in the case of nationalism. True gratitude is based instead on empathy, connecting with each other with positive emotion. 

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life…It makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow” 

—AUTHOR MELODIE BEATTIE

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