The Benefits of Gratitude

Thanksgiving at our house includes a tour around the table where everyone mentions what they are grateful for. The responses vary from: “my new job”, to “the beauty of nature”, to “my partner’s colonoscopy”, which can send the group from gentle reflection to riotous laughter. Gratitude is an emotion that expresses appreciation for what one has, rather than what one wants. So what does gratitude do for us?

No matter where you’re from, it is evident that of late, people are on edge. Recent psychological studies have shown that people who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice little things and think about how they’re thankful for them, show more compassion and kindness, have more positive emotions, sleep better, have a joi-de-vivre about them and have better health. There is even a Science of Gratitude.

Michael E. McCollough of the University of Miami and Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, the top researchers in the study of gratitude, showed its effects on their test subjects in a research paper called Gratitude and Thankfulness. In the study, their subjects experienced:

  • Better health and exercised more
  • Attained more personal goals
  • Increased attentiveness, energy levels and enthusiasm
  • Were more likely to help others
  • Felt more interconnected with others
  • Were less envious and more willing to share

When I worked as a registered nurse at the hospital, I found that my patients who had an attitude of gratitude got better faster, and had more energy to sit up in a chair or walk. Robert Emmons maintains that gratitude lowers blood pressure, fosters a stronger immune system and adds to more pleasurable life experiences.

Gratitude can create happier memories. Studies on subjects with PTSD and people fighting addiction, showed that changing a person’s mood through being grateful for one aspect of a traumatic experience, actually re-framed the memory. A person could then think of the negative situation they kept remembering, as a positive or neutral experience.

Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations the same way they always had. The second group, who was assigned to work on a different day, got a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who discussed with the fund-raisers how she was grateful for their efforts. The people who heard her message of gratitude made fifty percent more fund-raising calls than those who did not, in the week that followed.

Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. Whether it is bosses with workers or in couples, research has shown that individuals who expressed gratitude not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns. Marriage counselors suggest that couples retrace their steps to the beginning of their relationship to remember what it was they appreciated about their partner.

A study using MRI technology has revealed the act of giving activates the same sections of the brain that are roused by food and sex. Generosity toward others, along with gratitude can create a dopamine release making a person feel not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.

Now when I find myself sad or upset about something, I’ve taken up the practice of reminding myself to be grateful for things like fresh air or a beautiful sunrise and somehow it always makes me feel better.


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