Gratitude, it’s not just for the holidays

Do you regularly express gratitude? I mean, on purpose, and for little reason; as in, look someone in the eye and say, “Thank you for doing that.” I don’t do this nearly as often as I should, but have been paying a lot of attention to this space lately.

I know, gratitude is a concept that can seem a little “touchy-feely.” I was training a group of oilfield workers recently, and when I raised the subject of gratitude, I was ready for the eyes to begin to roll. “We don’t do that ‘soft and fluffy’ stuff out here,” was what I thought I would hear. Interestingly, they stepped up and shared stories of how gratitude has impacted not only their day-to-day work lives, but in actually how they feel every day.

It’s Like an “Apple a Day,” but it Actually Works!

It turns out that being grateful is not only wise for building better relationships, but it’s also good for your health. Gratitude brings about an increased ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and improves sleep.

“If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

Study after study has shown that gratitude can produce measurable effects on a number of physiological systems in your body. It’s not just all “in your head!” These systems include:

  • Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine)
  • Reproductive and dominance hormones (testosterone)
  • Bonding hormones (oxytocin)
  • Blood sugar
  • Blood pressure and cardiac rhythms
  • Stress hormones (cortisol)
  • Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)
  • Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)

Grateful Heart, Healthy Heart

Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego completed a study that showed definitively that having a grateful heart led to a healthier heart. Mills’ study featured 186 men and women (average age = 66) who had all experienced some form of damage to their hearts via heart disease, sustained high blood pressure, heart attack, or infection of the heart. Each participant filled in a questionnaire. The more grateful people were, the healthier they tended to be. “We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said Mills. Gratitude and spirituality have been inextricably linked for a long time, and folks who consider themselves more “spiritual” have reported lower stress levels, better sleep, and more energy. Mills’ research shows that gratitude transcends the typically discussed psychological effects and has a marked impact on heart physiology. Higher gratitude scores were directly linked to lower inflammatory markers (inflammation is linked to worsening heart disease).

It wasn’t just the initial findings that were surprising; Mills and Co. had a subset of the population write down three things for which they were thankful, most days, for eight weeks. Patients who kept these “gratitude journals” showed additional reductions in levels of those inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate viability. “Improved heart rate viability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” according to Mills.

I’m curious, how to you express gratitude? What impact has it had in your life?