Beyond simple niceties, science shows that a thankful heart can actually be a healthier one.
We live in a time when the reminders to be thankful are everywhere – the Gratitude Era – and it’s not a bad thing. Few other conscious acts beyond the decision to appreciate what one has can put such a positive spin on life. But as it turns out, there’s more to it than just the warm and fuzziness of feeling blessed. And in fact, being grateful could even potentially alleviate one's needs for medication to treat some conditions.
According to research published by the American Psychological Association, recognizing and giving thanks for the good things in life can result in better health by way of:
1. Less depression
2. Higher quality sleep
3. More self-efficacy (belief in one's ability to handle a situation)
4. Less inflammation
"We found that more gratitude ... was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health," said lead author Paul J. Mills, PhD, professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego.
The study included 186 men and women who had been diagnosed with Stage B heart failure – which designates structural heart disease, but without symptoms of heart failure – for at least three months. According to Mills, this stage has significant therapeutic value because it’s the chance to halt the progression of the disease before it worsens to Stage C, in which risk of death is five times higher.
Using standard psychological tests, the participants were scored on gratitude and spiritual well-being. The team then analyzed those scores and compared them to the patients' results for depressive symptom severity, sleep quality, fatigue, self-efficacy and inflammatory markers. The higher the gratitude scores, they found, the better mood, higher quality sleep, more self-efficacy and less inflammation, which can exacerbate heart failure.
Exploring further, the researchers asked some of the group to use a journal and to jot down daily three things for which they were thankful for, for eight weeks. While all of the patients continued to receive regular clinical care during the time, the ones who recorded what they were thankful for improved even more.
"We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk," said Mills.
"It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart,” he added.