HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Giving Thanks

The effects of joy and gratitude on the human body

Giving Thanks

As we approach our national day of thanksgiving, it seems fitting to reflect on some of what science has to say about gratitude, which has been called the “forgotten factor” in happiness research.

Psychologists Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis, and Michael McCullough, at the University of Miami, are the foremost researchers in the field of gratitude. What they have learned so far is that gratitude is good for you, really good for you.

In an experimental comparison, people 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 & McCullough, 2003). It doesn’t end there.

Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based). And there’s more. Young adults who practice a daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) had higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to the group that focused on hassles or thinking of how they were better off than others. The researchers keep adding to the list benefits that come from practicing gratitude.

Given all the benefits, how interesting it is that we designate only one day to giving thanks.

Heart and soul

Researchers have found that when we think about someone or something we really appreciate and experience the feeling that goes with the thought, the parasympathetic — calming-branch of the autonomic nervous system — is triggered. This pattern when repeated bestows a protective effect on the heart. The electromagnetic heart patterns of volunteers tested become more coherent and ordered when they activate feelings of appreciation.

There is evidence that when we practice bringing attention to what we appreciate in our lives, more positive emotions emerge, leading to beneficial alterations in heart rate variability. This may not only relieve hypertension but reduce the risk of sudden death from coronary artery disease.

The more we pause to appreciate and show caring and compassion, the more order and coherence we experience internally. When our hearts are in an "internal coherence state," studies suggest that we enjoy the capacity to be peaceful and calm yet retain the ability to respond appropriately to stressful circumstances. (A Different Kind of Health: Finding Well-Being Despite Illness, by Blair Justice, pp. 100-101.)

Neurobiologically, gratitude is nested within the social emotions, along with awe, wonder, "elevation" and pride. It can be both practiced and experienced.

Soul and serotonin

An example of practicing gratitude is volunteering to help others in return for having been helped. As an experience, it is felt in the same frontal regions of the brain that are activated by awe, wonder and transcendence. From these cortical and limbic structures come dopamine and serotonin, the chemicals for feeling good inside.

Gratitude, then, can be a total body experience and beyond — meaning the deepest and widest gratitude comes from the soul and that part of the brain — the amygdala - that registers "soul" experiences.

So when we look at snow-capped peaks or golden swatches of changing aspen or the Milky Way at night from high in the Rockies, our souls sing and our bodies are suffused with streams of dopamine and serotonin, the gifts of gratitude. In short, feeling gratitude and appreciation on a regular basis helps heal us at every level of our being.

Otherwise

Sometimes the poets point the way to gratitude more than the scientists who can demonstrate its benefit. Jane Kenyon was a poet who understood appreciation. Much of her life, until she died of leukemia in 1998, she suffered from bipolar disease, with severe depression.

Her poem, Otherwise , reflects her wisdom in appreciating and giving thanks for the ordinariness of life that we often take for granted until it's taken from us. She must have been one of the exceptional healers this article describes.