Thanksgiving is a day to think about what makes you most grateful. But why stop there? Research has shown that reminding yourself constantly of all you have to be thankful for can yield remarkable rewards both physically and mentally. So don’t stop feeling thankful once the turkey dinner’s done. Make gratitude a lifelong habit and reap these 4 scientifically-backed health benefits of gratitude that you never knew.
Surprising Scientific Health Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude is a Stress Buffer
“It's impossible to feel stress, anger, or any other negative emotion, and appreciation at the same time,” says Jesse Simpson, a personal development and wellness coach with Chicago-founded Ama La Vida Coaching.
A report published in the Journal of Happiness Studies backs him up. Highlighting the relationship between daily feelings of gratitude and well-being, the report noted that folk who regularly counted their blessings felt reduced negative effects of daily stress.
Simpson, who is a former U.S. Marine and firefighter, says that even in life’s darkest hours, it’s possible to find something to be thankful for. “The fact that our hearts spontaneously beat and the sun rises is enough. Without either, we wouldn't be alive to experience any of this.”
Gratitude Makes Your Heart Healthy
And feeling grateful for your beating heart can help make it healthier too. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude, claims that an individual’s mindset can greatly affect the body’s biochemistry, especially factors related to heart disease. Feeling grateful about your life he says lowers stress and gives you reason to relax. “Gratitude is associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, both at rest and in the face of stress.”
Further research builds on this evidence. For example, the Harvard Medical School’s GRACE study (Gratitude Research in Acute Coronary Events) showed that patients who practiced gratitude in the two weeks following an acute coronary event had healthier hearts than those who didn’t.
And the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley also revealed that in a study of 185 heart patients, those with a more “grateful disposition” had less systemic inflammation.
Gratitude Helps You Sleep Better
Gratitude is also related to better sleep quality. Researchers at the University of Manchester in England studied 400 adults to measure the effects of thinking grateful thoughts just before hitting the sack. They found that those who focused on positive thoughts of gratitude dozed off faster, slept more deeply and snoozed for longer than those who counted sheep rather than their blessings.
“Cultivating feelings of gratitude is the best way to end your day,” says Simpson. “Before slipping under, consciously shift your focus to all the things going great in your life and around the world. It’s too easy to get caught up in dramas, judgement, failure, regret, worry, and negative self-talk.”
He also reminds us that, “While we sleep your brain is processing all the day’s memories and experiences. By reflecting on what we are grateful for before we fall asleep, we’re attracting more things to be grateful for tomorrow, too.”
Gratitude Makes You More Motivated
It has been argued that an “attitude of gratitude” often encourages people to accept the status quo. Emmons disagrees. In a 2011 study conducted with his colleague Anjali Mishra, he notes that rather than passivity, gratitude enhances “effortful goal striving.”
In the study, participants were asked to list the goals they wanted to accomplish within the next two months and were then randomly assigned either to keep a daily gratitude journal, jot down musings around their daily problems or follow-through on neutral writing exercises. By the end of the study, those in the gratitude journaling group reported making the most progress toward their goals during the two-month period.
So as you give thanks for all you have this Thanksgiving Day, pledge to make daily gratitude a habit that lasts for more than just the holiday weekend. Both Simpson and Emmons suggest keeping a gratitude journal or, if writing’s not your thing, just take some time each morning or evening to think a little on what you’re grateful for, says Simpson. After all, a few moments of reminding yourself why it’s good to be alive can make that life better, brighter and healthier.