Psychologists have spent lots of time in recent years researching the many ways gratitude improves people’s mental and physical health. Now a study from the University of California San Diego shows not just how powerful gratitude can be, but also how easy it is to embrace it—even if you don’t think of yourself as the least bit spiritual.
Led by Paul J. Mills, Ph.D., professor of family medicine and public health, researchers looked at a group of patients with asymptomatic heart failure, and discovered that those who had a tendency to feel grateful didn’t just feel better in terms of mood and fatigue, they also slept better and had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health. And while people with higher levels of spirituality are typically healthier, this study has an intriguing twist: Researchers were able to tease out that it was the gratitude component of spirituality—not spirituality per se—that accounted for the health gains.
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Gratitude is usually defined as having a wider outlook, and appreciating life’s positive aspects, he says. But it needn’t be linked to any spiritual belief. (To spark your thinking about the things you’re grateful for, take Life Reimagined’s Good Life Inventory.)
Researchers then asked a group of patients to keep gratitude journals for eight weeks, and that group also showed an improvement in biomarkers. Interestingly, while they were writing in their journals, they increased their heart rate variability. (This is the interval between heartbeats, and higher levels are associated with reduced mortality, while lower levels are linked to worry, stress and higher mortality risks.)
If it’s good for the hearts of sick people, it’s good for all of us, says Mills, especially people trying to change their way of looking at the world. “Gratitude empowers me with a sense of connectedness,” he says, “and it’s part of a greater sense of well-being.”
As for the many people who shy away from the word spirituality? “Don’t worry,” he says. “Spirituality is a concept that includes many things—such as passion, love and forgiveness, as well as gratitude. But for this study, the gratitude component was the key.”
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