3 Ways Practicing Gratitude Can Benefit Your Health

UPDATED: December 27, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 5, 2017
Girl donating her old toys learning about the benefits of gratitude

Abi knows the drill by now. At least once every couple of months, her mother and I pack up a bunch of clothes and electronics and other stuff we’ve outgrown, load the boxes into the car and drive down to the local Goodwill donation center. At 5 years old, Abi still giggles at the ding-ding of the driveway bell as we pull into the unloading area. But recently our arrival at the loading zone triggered a different response from the back seat.

“Hey!” Abi said. “Did you guys sneak into my room and steal my toys?”

My wife and I exchanged a glance of incredulity and stifled a laugh. We turned to gently correct our daughter. Overlooking the criminal accusation, we told her we were only giving away things we no longer used (no toys were packed up… this time). Then we reminded her why we were there. We’re lucky, we told her. We have lots of things other families don’t have. This is our way of giving back.

As any parent knows, this is just part of a larger mission, along with nudging our child to give Grandma a hug after receiving a lollipop or cueing up the “What do we say?” refrain when the checkout clerk issues an offhand compliment about her Wonder Woman T-shirt. We try to raise grateful kids because we don’t want brats who grow into entitled adolescents and self-centered young adults.

We do it, perhaps subconsciously, because we grown-ups also need an occasional reminder to assess and be thankful for what we have. We want to be better people and be surrounded by better people.

The health benefits of gratitude

Now there is another reason to live by and spread the gospel of gratitude—it’s good for your health. Across the country, researchers and scientists in the field of positive psychology have been amassing evidence that gratitude has a wide range of mental and physical health benefits. “Left to their own devices, our minds tend to hijack every opportunity for happiness,” says Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. “Negativity, entitlement, resentfulness, forgetfulness and ungratefulness all clamor for our attention. Weighed down by negativity, we are worn down, emotionally and physically exhausted. Gratitude is our best weapon, an ally to counter these internal and external threats that rob us of sustainable joy.”

Emmons and his research team are at the forefront of a growing body of research to back up the philosophy that gratitude can improve our health. Through various practices, such as having people keep daily journals of gifts and graces, researchers have observed a wide range of psychological and physical benefits that could be related to gratitude, including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol and reductions in anxiety and risk of depression. Researchers have also found that expressing gratitude can improve interpersonal connections—all from just taking a minute or two to stop and say “thank you” to a co-worker who helped you in a bind or a friend who baked you cupcakes.

“In gratitude, we focus on the giftedness of life,” Emmons says. “We affirm that goodness exists, even among the rancor of daily life. This realization is freeing, redeeming. Gratitude works.”

Gratitude can reduce stress

Sure—but how does it work? How does a diary of blessings or a “thx!” text have the potential to function as such a cure-all? Although the physiological science behind the connection is still a bit murky, Emmons says that from a behavioral and psychological standpoint, gratitude may heal simply by overcoming and blocking out the general negativity that causes the stress so many maladies stem from. 

Having an overall focus on the positive can trigger the parasympathetic part of the nervous system that eases stress. In fact, prior research linked positive emotions to decreases in levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. That relief alone can have far-reaching health benefits.

Gratitude can benefit the immune system

Emmons and his colleagues at UC Davis are not alone in their quest to discover why expressing gratitude makes us healthier. In a paper published by faculty at University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, researchers observed a correlation between optimistic outlooks—which have been linked to gratitude—and heightened immune systems among first-year law students.

Gratitude can benefit heart health

In 2015, Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego, spearheaded a study of 186 men and women around the age of 66, who all had been diagnosed with asymptomatic heart failure. Mills and his research team found that, among study participants, expressions of gratitude were associated with better sleep, less depressed mood, less fatigue, better self-efficacy, and less inflammation. A follow-up study of 70 patients revealed that those who kept a gratitude journal for two months as part of their treatment showed reduced inflammation and improved heart rhythm. “There’s an old axiom that ‘A grateful heart is a healthy heart,’” Mills says. “Those who showed more gratitude were certainly better off than those who didn’t.”

Mills, who specializes in disease process, says he doesn’t really know exactly how gratitude benefits our hearts. But he has a theory. “When I bring into my mind an attitude of gratitude, I immediately feel more connected, not only to myself, but to my environment—the opposite of how I feel when I’m stressed or depressed, when we retreat into ourselves,” he says. “Gratitude helps us reconnect with the world around us. When we are connected, we’re less stressed. We are social beings. And when we have less stress, we experience all the downstream benefits.”

The importance of expressing gratitude

The bulk of studies deal with the internal perks of a grateful attitude. But in order to get the maximum benefit, we have to do more than think about gratitude and jot it down in our private journals. After all, what good is a thank-you note if it’s never sent?

Emmons says personal awareness of what we’re thankful for is only the first step. Expressing that gratitude, either verbally or through an action or gesture, is how we build successful and supportive relationships.

“Gratitude requires empathy, it tunes you into the goals of another so that you can be more supportive of their efforts and sensitive to their needs,” says Giacomo Bono, associate professor of cognitive and applied psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

He says that helping others puts you in a better position to help yourself. “We don’t achieve things without taking chances,” Bono says. “We have to put ourselves out there, and a lot of times, we might not do that on our own. But if you have one or two good colleagues who are supportive of your efforts, then you’re more likely to take a chance. And without taking that chance, you’ll never know your capacity.” Bono points out that this give-and-take is the foundation for all our social and business networks because expressing gratitude is key in developing trust.

Start practicing at anytime to gain the benefits of gratitude

Bono has done a lot of work in observing and teaching gratitude to children. But he says the beauty of this psychological and physical salve is that even if your parents or teachers didn’t drill it into you as a kid, you can pick it up any time.

For anyone looking to tap into the healing power of thankfulness, he recommends keeping a journal or a list of people, places and things you’re grateful for. This will serve as a daily reminder to be on the lookout for the positive. Also try to express your gratitude more regularly by saying “thank you,” or even giving a fist bump or a high-five when appropriate. 

Rather than just dashing off a terse email, Bono advocates reviving the lost art of sitting down with a pen and handwriting a letter or note that you can deliver personally. The extra effort will emphasize how much you appreciate the recipient’s help. “A thoughtful note of thanks slows life down and focuses on the benefactor and on the fact that their efforts mattered to you,” Bono says. “With the fast pace of life, just slowing down is important. Mindfulness is healthy. Slow down and appreciate it.”

Connecting joy to gratitude

Whether you’re penning a note on personalized stationery, scribbling in a journal or just meditating, a deep contemplation of gratitude will probably be a tuneup for your mind and body in many ways—including some we might not yet even know.

Back at UC Davis, Emmons says the research into the science of gratefulness continues, including gratitude’s connection with joy. “I am most intrigued with how gratitude rescues us from negativity,” Emmons says. “Joy, we feel, is much more basic to flourishing and well-being than happiness, which is more of a cognitive judgment, whereas joy is a basic emotion. We hypothesize that gratitude is the foundation for joy, since gratitude is the relationship-strengthening emotion, and joy is fundamentally and foundationally about connection.”

Meanwhile, back home, Abi is probably too young for journaling or letter writing beyond a quick note. But maybe we’ll start sitting down on a regular basis and making a list of our blessings. Along with prompting empty muttered “thank yous,” we’ll take a second or two afterward to dig beneath the autopilot politeness and mine the true reason she should be appreciative.

And the next time we make a Goodwill run, maybe it’ll be time for us to give Abi an empty box and ask her to choose the toys and books she feels she can part with—items she thinks some other girl or boy might enjoy. To focus on what she has, what we all have as a family and why some of these things might be more valuable to others.

We know it will be a hard lesson. But hopefully, one day, she’ll thank us.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated December 2023. Photo by Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock.com