The Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

Each year we close the calendar with an emphasis on gratitude and giving to others.  The Latin word gratia encompasses the idea of being grateful and acknowledging the goodness in our lives.  Embracing such an emphasis can propel us into the upcoming year with renewed strength and hope.

Scientific research supports the health benefits of a grateful heart.  Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much research on gratitude. In one study, they asked the participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them.  The third wrote about events that had affected them with no emphasis on being positive or negative.  After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of different interventions on 411 people.  When the week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other assignment.

Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. A study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.

Why does gratitude have such a powerful impact on our health?  With gratitude we appreciate what we have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make us happier.  We focus on what is abundant instead of what we lack.  With gratitude, half empty cups fill to overflowing.

Though it may seem awkward at first, the habit of cultivating gratitude grows stronger with practice.  When we acknowledge the goodness in our lives and recognize that the source of much of that goodness lies outside ourselves, we connect to something larger—whether to other people, nature or a higher power.

Here are a few suggestions for unleashing the power of gratitude:

  • Write a thank-you note. Send at least one appreciation letter each month. Reconnect with someone from the past who has blessed your life.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down a few small gifts you receive each day.
  • Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to enumerate your blessings. How high can you count?
  • Pay it forward. Gratitude and giving go hand-in-hand. Help someone (anonymously) as a way of showing thanks for the many times others have helped you
  • Be mindful about the moment. Focus on the everyday, simple things you are grateful for such as the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc. Offer up a breathe prayer of thanks.

Melodie Beattie penned the following about the power of a grateful heart:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

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