How Gratitude Improves Our Health

Gratitude can help us physically, psychologically, and socially.

Physically, gratitude can help boost our immune systems, lower pain and blood pressure, and have better sleep. Gratitude can also build positive emotions, we feel more alert, experience more joy and pleasure, and feel more optimistic. It boosts our social lives through being more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving, feeling less lonely and isolated too. We become more outgoing and friendly when we experience gratitude.

The Two Stages of Gratitude

According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages. The first one is that we acknowledge the goodness in our life. At this stage, we realise that life is good. The second stage is that we acknowledge the source of goodness lies outside of us. We are then grateful for other people, animals, blessings that have come our way.

We are grateful for the goodness in our life and where that source of goodness comes from.

Purpose of Gratitude

The purpose of displaying gratitude is that it boosts wellbeing and it also helps harness pro-social behaviour. Simply being grateful for being alive motivates us to seize opportunities. The idea that tomorrow is not guaranteed is motivating for many.

Being grateful and displaying gratitude is a selfless act. Gratitude is displayed without expecting anything in return. Displaying gratitude can be cathartic.

Reciprocity can also emerge as a result of displaying gratitude. While one does not expect an exchange from the act of gratitude, often it can spur the recipient of gratitude to reciprocate with a kind gesture. This leads to a social exchange known as ‘paying it forward.’

Trait or State?

Gratitude is regarded as a trait (dispositional) or state (how we feel). According to McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang (2002), gratitude is considered a character strength that can be used as part of everyday living, and it can be harnessed and developed (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). When emotion is displayed in response to another person’s expression of gratitude, this is called a state (Watkins, Van Gelder, and Frias, 2009).

Neuroscience and Gratitude

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has been used in studies to assess the brain’s response to gratitude and has found that increased gratitude was associated with brain activity in the regions of the brain that deal with morality, reward, and value judgement. Gratitude is a social emotion that is linked to stress reduction, as an attitude of gratitude lowers levels of stress.

The Gratitude Letter:

Seligman, Steen, and Peterson (2005) asked participants to write a letter expressing gratitude to someone that had been kind to them, but who had never been properly thanked. The three steps to take in this gratitude letter are:

1. Identify the person that has done something important and wonderful for you, but you haven’t thanked properly.

2. Secondly, reflect on the benefits you received from this person and write them a letter expressing your gratitude for all they have done.

3. Finally, arrange to deliver the letter in person when you will both have time to talk about what you wrote.

Results have shown that those that wrote letters of thanksgiving had increased happiness for one month after writing the letter in comparison to a control group in the experiment.

Children can do this exercise to breed a heart of thankfulness.

Social bonds and relationships

Gratitude has also been linked to broader pro-social behaviour and benefits relationships. Barbara Fredrickson’s research into the Broaden and Build Theory (2004) highlights that anything that boosts positive emotions actually has an off-set response where further positive emotions are displayed. Happier, positive emotions, contribute to pro-social behaviour which means that we live out happier healthier lives, helping others, and building community. In a romantic relationship, gratitude serves to build a stronger bond, with less conflict. Being thankful for the things that your partner does only increases the amount they will continue to do. Feelings of gratitude have a reciprocal effect.

Gratitude not only boosts social wellbeing, but it increases career prospects too. It helps you manage better and cultivate better working relationships.

Acknowledgement Of Country

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.