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I discussed last week various factors involved in holistic health ranging from self-compassion, relationships, joyful movement, and nurturing food choices. This week, it seems the most appropriate time to focus on another state of mind that can positively influence our overall wellness, gratitude.
What is Gratitude and Why We Should Care (and Why Scrooges Should Too)
According to a 2010 article in Psychiatry (Edgmont), the meaning of gratitude can differ based on the context. Due to this ambiguity, researchers must state their interpretation of this word in order to define the outcomes of their study. In this article, the authors write the following regarding variations in the definition of gratitude, including clarification of their study’s own:
- … gratitude has been conceptualized as a moral virtue, an attitude, an emotion, a habit, a personality trait, and a coping response.1
- A number of researchers have defined gratitude as a positive emotional reaction in response to the receipt of a gift or benefit from someone.2
- Gratitude has also been conceptualized both as a state phenomenon (i.e., an emotional reaction to a present event or experience) as well as a dispositional characteristic or trait phenomenon.2
- For our purposes, we would like to define gratitude in a much broader sense. Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation. This proposed definition transcends the interpersonal overtones attributed to the term (i.e., the construct of receiving something from someone) and allows for a more inclusive meaning (e.g., being thankful for experiences, such as being alive and coming into contact with nature). This definition also allows for both state and trait contexts.
In another 2010 article, published in Clinical Psychology Review, “Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration,” yet another model was introduced:
This paper presents a new model of gratitude incorporating not only the gratitude that arises following help from others but also a habitual focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life”, …
Why did I spend so much time on the definition of one word?
Knowing that this term, associated with Thanksgiving, family gatherings, turkey, and the start of the holiday season, is more than just an expression of thanks makes it easier to understand its benefits, throughout many different situations and environments. For example:
- Gratitude has been associated with various advantageous health outcomes, including well-being and effective coping of events.
- It has therapeutic potential due to these positive correlations. As stated on the Designs for Health website:
Although setting aside a specific time of the year to express thankfulness is important, studies show us that a daily attitude of gratitude can have a profoundly positive impact on our health. Recently coined as “gratitude intervention,” this trait is quickly moving outside of its traditional moral realms into that of the therapeutic. Many practitioners team it with mindfulness therapy and recommend gratitude intervention as a part of daily meditation.
Three Ways that the Healing Power of Gratitude Can Impact Your Health
1. Human Sociality, Morality, Relationships, and the Power of Positivity
In the 2015 study, “Neural Correlates of Gratitude”, in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers demonstrated that gratitude is linked to brain areas related to positive emotions and mortality. The authors used a very emotionally triggering stimulus. The participants were asked to place themselves in the stories of survivors of the Holocaust that received shelter and lifesaving supplies from strangers. They would then imagine their own experience of receiving such gifts. The following was stated in the article:
Gratitude is an important aspect of human sociality, and is valued by religions and moral philosophies. It has been established that gratitude leads to benefits for both mental health and interpersonal relationships. It is thus important to elucidate the neurobiological correlates of gratitude, which are only now beginning to be investigated…
To this end, we conducted an experiment during which we induced gratitude in participants while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging. We hypothesized that gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind…
The results revealed that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, in support of our hypotheses…
The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others.
If our brain circuits are set for more positivity and grateful responses, our health can be impacted in many ways. This is because how we feel effects our physicality, for better or worse. It has been found that the ability to forgive is associated with mortality risk and influencers of physical health. There is also evidence that the “distress” of negativity can lead to detrimental cardiovascular outcomes.
Another aspect of gratitude stated in the mentioned article was the importance of community and social connection that it is linked to. This is actually one of the most critical factors in health!
As I wrote in a previous blog:
Being in community has many health benefits. It boosts oxytocin and makes us feel more at ease, while decreasing stress. Other research shows that connections have positive effects on cognition, health, and emotional well-being…
To the make this point more poignant, research recently stated that loneliness can be more hazardous to your health than “obesity” or smoking!
If the topic of positivity and health interests you, I wrote more about it in my “Emotional Detox” blog, along with some practical applications. You can also learn more about what the power of community, the positivity of a positive state, and how inspiration can benefit you in this wonderful summary of the research.
Perhaps it can be said that being more positive would lead to more social interactions, or, perhaps the reverse is also true?
2. Better Psychological and Physical Health
A study published in Personality and Differences reported on how grateful individuals experience better emotional and bodily health and the connection between these two aspects:
While grateful individuals often fare better with respect to social and psychological health, few studies have tested the possibility that dispositional gratitude also promotes physical health. The current study not only addressed the link between gratitude and perceived physical health, but also why such a link might occur, as well as for whom. Our findings suggest that grateful individuals experience better physical health, in part, because of their greater psychological health, propensity for healthy activities, and willingness to seek help for health concerns. Interestingly, two of these mediators (psychological health and healthy activities) provided better explanations for the gratitude-to-health link later in adulthood than for young adults. In other words, the ways by which gratitude influences physical health differ across the lifespan.
3. Relieving the Impact of Chronic Stress on the Job
A study entitled, “Improving mental health in health care practitioners: randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention,” explained how being thankful could reduce stress in health care practitioners and create better outcomes which could benefit the individual and the general population.
For the study, researchers randomized 102 practitioners to three conditions: gratitude, hassle, and nil-treatment. The abstract states:
… Participants in the gratitude and hassle group wrote work-related gratitude and hassle diaries respectively twice a week for 4 consecutive weeks. A no-diary group served as control. Depressive symptoms (primary outcome) and perceived stress (secondary outcome) were collected at baseline, posttreatment, and 3-month follow-up. Intent-to-treat analyses were performed with mixed-effects regression.
CONCLUSION: Taking stock of thankful events is an effective approach to reduce stress and depressive symptoms among health care practitioners.
Now that you know all the benefits of gratitude, I hope you can embrace and practice a truly positive, joyful, sense of awe this holiday season.
Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!