Science and research on gratitude
“Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin,
and an antiseptic.”
— John Henry Jowett
If you start practicing now, you could be grateful by Thanksgiving. Not only that, your marriage could improve, you might be exercising more, feel less depressed, sleep better, have a healthier heart, more life satisfaction, and increase your chances of living longer.
This may sound like a late-night ad that comes with a free set of steak knives (...and that’s not all!), but a growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits. The benefits are so great, in fact, that it’s a wonder “gratitude gyms” aren’t already being franchised.
Robert A. Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, pioneer in the research on gratitude and one of the leading scholars in positive psychology, has written a new book on the impressive findings in the field. Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier is the perfect text for Gratitude 101, a course that could justifiably be part of the core curriculum to leading a happy life. What makes gratitude the “magic ingredient” is that it takes us outside ourselves so that we can see how we are part of the larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships -- relationships that are mutually reciprocal.
Research on gratitude
In one of his first studies on gratitude, conducted with colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, Emmons randomly assigned participants one of three tasks. Some were encouraged to feel gratitude indirectly, others to be indirectly negative and complaining, and a third group to be neutral.
Every week, participants kept a short journal. They briefly described either five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, or the opposite, five daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them. The neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told to accentuate the positive or negative. The results of this study at the end of 10 weeks:
- Participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions -- a full 25 percent happier.
- They reported fewer health complaints and even spent more time exercising than control participants.
- They had fewer symptoms of physical illness than the other two groups.
- The gratitude group exercised 1.5 hours more than the hassled group.
In a second study by Emmons, people were asked to write with daily frequency about things for which they were grateful or when they experienced gratitude. There was evidence that the daily intervention led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly practice in the first study. The results showed another benefit:
- Participants in the gratitude condition also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude condition increased “pro-social” motivation.
A third study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio disease (PPS).
- Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude condition reported more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening.
- The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control condition.
The participants weren’t the only ones believing life was better. According to the researchers, “Spouses of the participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control condition.”
Several studies have shown depression to be strongly inversely related to gratitude. The more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. The more depressed, the less likely one is to feel thankful for life. One researcher, Philip Watkins, clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls.
One reason may be that people who are grateful tend to show a positive recall bias (conjuring up many more pleasant memories than unpleasant ones) when asked about past life events, just as depressed individuals show a negative recall bias when asked about past life events. Watkins suggests that gratitude may help alleviate depression for three other reasons:
- Gratitude might increase a person’s potential for enjoyment of benefits and “the benevolence of the event.”
- A grateful attitude may provide useful coping skills for dealing with losses and other stressful events, such as appreciating important things that we have previously taken for granted.
- A grateful approach to life can increase one’s focus on their benefits in life.
Marriage: the 5 to 1 ratio
Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington has been researching marriages for two decades. The bottom line of all that research, he concludes, is that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), it is likely the marriage will end.
With 90 percent accuracy, Gottman can predict, often after only three minutes of observation, which marriages are likely to flourish and which will probably flounder. The formula is that for every negative expression (a complaint, frown, put-down, expression of anger) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter).
So, what’s the best way to create a positivity ratio? No surprises here. Gottman suggests practicing gratitude in marriage and having a goal of counting at least five blessings for every one complaint.
Gratitude and heart health
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.
In a study at Duke University Medical Center, 3,000 patients with significant blockage who were more socially isolated were substantially less likely to say they count their blessings by comparing themselves to less fortunate others. The benefit of gratitude extended even to people who had heart transplants. 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. Thankfulness also was predictive of greater compliance with the medical regimen and of fewer difficulties with diet and medications.”
Optimism and longevity
Can gratitude really help you live longer? Ample evidence suggests that hopelessness and despair can adversely impact the endocrine and immune systems, even hastening death. Conversely, being an optimist may help reduce your risk of dying from heart attack and other causes. A recent study at Mayo clinic found evidence suggesting that pessimists live shorter lives than optimists. People who scored high on optimism (measured on personality tests 30 years before) had a 50 percent lower risk of premature death than those who tested out as being more pessimistic.
A Dutch study reported that “optimistic” elderly men and women had a 55 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 23 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death than pessimists.
One of the most direct links between gratitude and optimism is shown in the “Nun Study” by David Snowdon, professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kentucky Medical School. In his now-famous research, Snowdon found “the more positive emotions expressed in the life stories of these nuns (contentment, gratitude/thankfulness, happiness, hope and love), the more likely they were to still be alive six decades later.
10 steps to gratitude
So, what’s the best way to make all these great things happen? In his book Thanks, Emmons recommends these 10 steps:
- Keep a gratitude journal daily, recording in writing what you are grateful for.
- Remember the bad. A mental comparison of how bad it was and how much better it is now really helps.
- Three questions to ask yourself:
What have I received from ______?
What have I given to ________?
What troubles and difficulty have I caused ____?
- Learn prayers or meditations of gratitude.
- Come to your “senses.” Count bodily related blessings: being able to see, hear, walk, eat, etc.
- Use visual reminders, like pictures of loved ones or scenes of nature.
- Make a vow to practice gratitude.
- Watch your language. Negative talk undermines the gratitude practice.
- Go through the motions. Feelings follow words and actions.
- Think outside the box. Think of the non-obvious things to be grateful for.
Gratitude, with practice, can become not only a habit, but a way of viewing the world. “Ain’t it Awful” is as much learned as “Ain’t it Grand,” and not nearly so much fun. No doctor’s appointment needs to be scheduled to practice gratitude, no deductible on your insurance, no personal trainer required. This amazing health remedy is yours for the taking, right now. So, say, “Thank you!”
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