Each year, we collectively turn to family, food and thanksgiving to acknowledge gratitude for all we have. It is a time of connection and joy for many people.
Can gratitude practiced throughout the year, each day or each moment, have significant effects on one’s health and life? It’s a topic that a growing number of researchers are turning to.
The studies outlined below indicate that the health benefits of gratitude extend to both body and mind.
Gratitude and the Heart
Researcher Paul J. Mills, Ph.D., led a team of investigators from the University of California, San Diego, and the Chopra Center for Wellbeing to investigate gratitude’s effects on mental and physical health. Their study, “The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-Being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients,” published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice, looked at 186 females and males who had stage B heart failure.
“Stage B consists of patients who have developed structural heart disease ([such as], have had a heart attack that damaged the heart) but do not show symptoms of heart failure ([such as], shortness of breath or fatigue),” according to Mills, in a press release about the study from the American Psychological Association.
“This stage is an important therapeutic window for halting disease progression and improving quality of life, since Stage B patients are at high risk of progressing to symptomatic (Stage C) heart failure, where risk of death is five times higher,” the press release noted.
The investigators measured the subjects’ sense of gratitude and spirituality, using psychological tests. They then compared those scores to subjects’ depressive symptoms, sleep quality, fatigue, self-efficacy and inflammatory markers. They found that gratitude “fully or partially accounted for the beneficial effects of spiritual well-being,” the press release noted.
Some subjects were asked to record what they were grateful for, during an eight-week period. “We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote,” said Mills in the press release. “Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk.”
The investigators found that gratitude contributed to a lower cellular inflammatory index, better sleep, improved mood, lessened fatigue and greater self-efficacy.
“Untangling these relationships further, we found that higher trait gratitude mediates spiritual well-being’s positive effects on better sleep and less depressed mood (and to a lesser degree fatigue and cardiac-specific self-efficacy),” the research stated.
Takeaway: Keep a gratitude journal. Whether you write in your journal, draw pictures, or use a combination of both, recording thoughts and feelings about what you are grateful for could have heart-health benefits.
Gratitude and Sociability
Where does gratitude live inside of us? As research increasingly focuses on neural networks, investigators are looking at the brain to see where emotions reside.
In one study, subjects read about, and were shown video footage of, Holocaust survivors telling their stories, which included being saved by being given food, shelter or other assistance. The stories’ subjects also conveyed their own feelings of gratitude for that assistance.
Subjects were asked to imagine themselves in the same situation and then rate their own feelings of gratitude while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The investigators, from the Department of Psychology’s Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, noted, “Gratitude is an important aspect of human sociality, and is valued by religions and moral philosophies. It has been established that gratitude leads to benefits for both mental health and interpersonal relationships. It is thus important to elucidate the neurobiological correlates of gratitude, which are only now beginning to be investigated.”
They had hypothesized that “gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind,” according to an abstract from the publisher.
“Gratitude as a social emotion is related to general affective processing,” they said. “Meta-analyses of neural networks involved in affective processing have found data that overlap with the present study, pointing to gratitude as an emotion at the intersection of social processing and other more general affective processes.”
The study, “Neural correlates of gratitude,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Takeaway: Practice gratitude for this amazing vessel—your body-mind—that you have the privilege of residing in, and for all the neural connections that positive emotions help create.
Gratitude and Touch
Although no surprise to massage therapists, research also indicates that friendly touch can stimulate feelings of gratitude.
Investigators from the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, in Norway, hypothesized that “physical contact embodies a communal relation and therefore increases gratitude for the relation,” according to the research, “Friendly touch increases gratitude by inducing communal feelings,” published by Frontiers in Psychology.
All 36 subjects first completed a questionnaire on friendship intended to induce a communal mindset. They then participated in a team task with a confederate. Half of the subjects received a friendly touch to the shoulder, while half were not touched. They all then received a benefit, in the form of a five-euro gift voucher. Lastly, they indicated their gratitude.
Through analysis, the investigators determined that the touch alone did not create feelings of gratitude, but that “communal feelings”—or feeling in relationship with, or connected to, another person, engendered by the touch—is what resulted in the increased gratitude among those subjects who were touched.
The investigators then conducted a second study with 92 subjects, in which they compared touch of people with a communal mindset versus touch of people with a neutral mindset and found that “[r]egardless of the mindset, participants who received a touch reported feeling more pre-benefit gratitude … than participants who did not receive a touch.”
Takeaway: Although you get paid to touch people in a structured, professional manner, remember to touch, caress and hug those you love. Your relationships could benefit from it.
Gratitude and Massage
When a client looks up from the massage table after a session, he or she often says “thank you” to the therapist. Grateful for healthy touch and the feelings of relaxation and pain relief it engenders, it is a natural response.
For massage therapists, thoughts of personal gratitude might focus, in return, on their clients and career.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to change people’s lives, both that of my clients as well as many therapists [and] healing arts professionals I’ve had the opportunity to teach or mentor,” massage educator and therapist Felicia Brown told MASSAGE Magazine.
“When I decided to go to massage school, I had no idea of the impact this amazing profession would have on my life in so many ways,” she continued. “I’m also incredibly grateful to be able to live a life that is authentic and deeply enriching in so many ways. It is a true gift to be able to do what I love every single day, and get paid for it.”
Port Charlotte, Florida, massage therapist and esthetician Jolene McDuffie, L.M.T., said she is grateful for the chance to impact clients’ lives for the better.
“We have opportunities to do that every day,” McDuffie said, “but as therapists we have a unique opportunity, in that someone trusts us for an hour or so out of their week or month to bring peace and wellness to both mind and body.”
Takeaway: You are a valued part of this thing called life, and society needs your skilled touch. Thank you.
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her articles include “Aging Baby Boomers are Changing the Way Senior Massage is Delivered” and “New Study Explores Integrative Health Delivery for Military Veterans.”