Is there a relationship between gratitude and health?


I’m not sure how November became “gratitude month,” but I’m kind of grateful for whatever meme-maker started it. Sam is too. At first, it seemed like the provenance of bullet journal-makers and the people who teach mindfulness in the workplace, but I have realized through my coaching practice that focusing on gratitude can actually be a meaningful intervention to shifting our ability to cope in complicated or difficult times. There is, it turns out, even literature to support this.

It’s been known for a while that interventions like gratitude journaling can have a positive impact on stress and a sense of wellbeing in many contexts, including parenting, school and work — and there are hints that “gratitude interventions” can have a positive impact on physical health, including improving management of asthma, cardiovascular health, and other forms of chronic illness. This is especially so when gratitude is part of a social relationship — i.e., expressed to or by someone else.

So — why is this, exactly? There are a ton of researchers looking at this from a lot of different angles, including measuring brain activity in relation to various gratitude experiences. There is some suggestion that experiencing gratitude may lower your heart rate (certainly in comparison to experiencing resentment or a threat), and that gratitude ignites neural pathways that are related to (my words here, not theirs) the same parts of our brains ignited by belonging or caring for other people.

What is the relationship between focusing on the things you appreciate in your life and better managing your diabetes? There are two different types of processes involved.

The first is your own individual motivation. One group of researchers suggests it goes something like this: if you develop positive affect (i.e., a sense of appreciation or happiness) about your life in general, we feel less stress and have more energy to do the things that make us healthier (like exercising, not smoking, not drinking excessively, sleeping well), which helps reinforce unconscious motives for healthy behaviours, which leads to further engagement in healthy behaviours. It’s not as simple as individual choice and free will, of course — you need a social context and environment where healthy behaviours are possible. But there definitely does seem to be a relation between stress and misery and the deterioration of emotional and physical wellbeing.

The other set of factors is “prosocial” — i.e, related to how we experience ourselves in communites and relationships. Amplifying our sense of gratitude leads us to appreciate the people around us more, and to participate more fully in our communities. And “prosocial behaviour” — ie.., feeling like we belong to a community — has a well documented positive impact on our health.

So all those memes? They actually mean something. Cultivating a practice of quiet gratitude on its own supports our own emotional and physical wellbeing; telling someone else you are grateful for them amplifies it.

I’m going off now to send some texts full of gratitude. And I’ll leave you with a yoga I was grateful for yesterday, when I made the time to comfort and nourish myself.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is particularly grateful in this moment for her cats, her functioning body, her home and all the people she loves.

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