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What Gratitude Does for Your Body and Life
“Thank you” is something that people say casually to the store clerk when they finish bagging groceries, or to the teller who processes a deposit at the bank, or to the barber after a haircut. It’s an adequate expression of appreciation for a valued but smallish task. But “Thanks” or “Thank you” might seem inadequate to express gratitude to an employer who hires you after losing your job and benefits during a pandemic, or to a firefighter who saves a child from a burning building, or to a surgeon who performs a life-saving operation. And the words “thank you” definitely fall short when it comes to expressing gratitude to a parent for a lifetime of love and sacrifice, or a caregiver who tends to an elderly grandparent for years ‘til they pass, or to someone who donates a kidney that saves your child’s life.
Acts of goodness come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tiny and others are overwhelmingly impactful. Expressing appreciation for these gestures gets increasingly difficult the bigger the act. For many, words like “I really appreciate what you did…” feels like a woefully trite response to something someone did that was life-changing. A text message or email seems banal. Even a hand-written letter and gift may not properly convey just how much a particular act means… what impact it had… and how deeply it is appreciated. And yet, expressing gratitude is not just the right thing to do for the person who did the good gesture, it is also important for the health and well-being of the person conveying that appreciation. Acknowledging the good things that happen in one’s life not only can increase brain health – such as increasing happiness, reinforcing social and spiritual bonds, and boosting confidence – but it also has other important benefits to body and life.
What Gratitude Does for the Physical Health of the Person Giving Thanks
1. Gratitude improves heart function! Gratitude feels heartwarming but it also helps keep the actual heart muscle healthy. In 1995, a study found that people who expressed appreciation experienced improved heart rate variability, an indicator of good heart health. In another study, women who kept a gratitude journal where they wrote about “previously unappreciated people and things in their lives” for two weeks ended up with lower blood pressure than those who wrote about daily events.
And a 2017 study by Neal Krause and colleagues found that more grateful people had significantly lower levels of a protein found in red blood cells called hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c). High levels of HbA1c serve as a “biomarker” associated with an increased risk of heart failure and non-fatal heart attacks. HbA1C has also been implicated in poor blood sugar control in diabetes, as well as chronic kidney disease, a number of cancers, and overall risk of death. It was unclear whether gratefulness was correlated to or caused a lower HbA1C level. It could be that being more grateful directly affects one’s HbA1C level or it could be that people who express more gratitude may also be engaging in other positive health activities that in turn lower their HbA1C. Either way, increased gratitude seemed to create a ripple effect that benefited heart health.
Even people with heart problems benefitted from an attitude of gratitude. A study by Paul Mills and Laura Redwine looked at the relationship between gratitude and heart health in 186 people with Stage B, asymptomatic heart failure. Those are people whose hearts have suffered structural damage but who show no clear outward symptoms. Patients who did daily gratitude journaling for eight weeks showed decreased markers of inflammation — which is an immune response that can have negative effects on the body, including the cardiovascular system — by the end of the experiment. These people also reported better sleep, less fatigue, less depression, and more confidence in their ability to care for themselves. This was particularly important since depression and sleep problems can worsen heart failure. The results were so significant that it is believed that adding a gratitude journal as part of a heart patient’s program for recovery is beneficial.
And gratitude has even been found to help cardiac patients recovering from an actual heart attack. In a study by Jeff Huffman and his colleagues, grateful people showed signs of improved blood vessel function two weeks after being hospitalized for heart attacks, compared to less grateful patients. And people who were more grateful for two weeks after their heart attack were also more likely to follow their doctors’ recommendations six months later, which improved their prognosis for long-term recovery and survival. Now that’s a lot to for which to be grateful!
2. Gratitude improves sleep! Sleep is a critical element for staying in good health. Inadequate amounts of sleep puts a strain on the body. It increases the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions, and of becoming obese. So sufficient sleep is essential. However, many people have trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep for 7-8 hours. Expressing gratitude has been found to help with that, too. A study of 401 people, of which 40% suffered from clinically impaired sleep, found that those who were more grateful reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day. That study concluded that more grateful people sleep better because they have fewer negative thoughts and more positive ones at bedtime.
3. Gratitude promotes other healthy behaviors. It is not entirely clear what the cause/effect relationship is between gratitude and the body. But clearly there is some connection. Gratitude has been found to cause people to engage in other behaviors that help keep them healthy, like eating well and not smoking. People who partake in gratitude exercises report having healthier habits and follow their doctors’ recommendations better. Also, college students who journal their blessings weekly for 10 weeks have been found to exercise significantly more than those who do other writing activities. Gratitude also serves as a buffer against stress and anxiety.
Gratitude also plays a big role in fostering and strengthening social connections. And, a growing body of research strongly suggests that our relationships with others can have tangible health benefits.
How Gratitude Improves a Person’s Success in Life
In addition to helping the brain and body of the person expressing gratitude, it also helps them in their career. It does so in a multitude of ways. People who are grateful tend to:
- achieve more – Gratitude can lead to increased determination, energy, enthusiasm, and academic achievement.
- be better corporate citizens – There is a positive relationship between gratitude and corporate social responsibility.
- avoid burn out – Managers who express gratitude to employees have a lower tendency to suffer from burn out.
- pay it forward – People helped with a task are more likely to help others with unrelated tasks.
- be more morally alert – Gratitude encourages social and moral behavior and discourages strife and conflict.
- creates a positive feedback loop – Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop.
- increases company loyalty – Employees, who were given the opportunity to contribute to an employee beneficiary fund and donated, experienced the greatest increase in commitment to their company.
- h. be more engaged – Employees empowered to recognize and thank peers were more than twice as engaged as those who weren’t.
- i. be more emotionally healthy – Gratitude leads to lower stress and improved individual well-being. Grateful people make for better coworkers.
- j. get along better with others – People who express gratitude are more conscientious, agreeable, open, and extroverted. That makes them a better fit for most organizations and positions.
There are a multitude of ways for gratitude to be expressed. It can be in a simple phone call, text message or email for smaller acts of kindness. It can be in the form of face-to-face communication for a more meaningful and heartfelt expression. And cards, notes and letters – and perhaps even gifts — may seem more appropriate to say thanks for significant acts of kindness and grand gestures. Some people even get creative in giving thanks with skywriting and billboards.
When a government gives thanks to a person who has made a significant, major contribution to society, they often do it with medals, plaques or trophies. And when a person gives a lifetime of goodness to help a community, organizations will express thanks through induction into a Hall of Fame or a Lifetime Achievement Award. These are grand, public expressions of appreciation, which is nice for the recipient.
But what’s amazing is that expressing gratitude is beneficial to the expresser, even if that appreciation is never received by the person deserving thanks. Research has shown that writing a letter of appreciation to someone can benefit the giver’s mind and body, even if that letter is never sent or delivered to the person for whom the letter was written. Expressing gratitude in writing in a Gratitude Journal that no one else ever sees is still beneficial to the writer.
For those who doubt that gratitude can increase health and happiness and improve success, it is worth conducting a personal experiment. Keep a Gratitude Journal daily for a season. Show it to no one else. But write in daily the things appreciated, big and small. Write about gratitude not expressed before. If the inclination is to think “I don’t have much for which to be grateful,” then give thanks for things that benefit but there is no way to give thanks. For example, on any day that one eats a meal, we can thanks to farmers for their yearly toil. For food that is served at home, we can give thanks to truck drivers who drive long hours to get food from farm to table. For the peace we enjoy in this country, we can give thanks to the veterans who have served and defended our nation. For eyesight and hearing, we thank G-d for the blessings of senses that allow us to know and interact with the world. There are always things for which to be grateful, once one begins to give it thought. Try it and see if it doesn’t measurably make life sweeter for the giver and everyone else as well.
Quote of the Week
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” Zig Ziglar
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.