By Monica Giglio
For years, medical science has looked at the effects of negative stress and anger on the cardiovascular system, among other body systems. Stress can lead to negative attitudes, and negative attitudes can lead to negative stress. But what happens when stress is not only eliminated, but also completely reversed? In the past decade much research has been devoted to the Science of Positive Psychology.
“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, and longtime Positive Psychology researcher. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.” One recent study from the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine found that people who were more grateful had better heart health, specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms. “They showed a better well-being, a less depressed mood, less fatigue and they slept better,” said the study’s author, Paul J. Mills. “When I am more grateful, I feel more connected with myself and with my environment. That’s the opposite of what stress does.”
Do we possess the power to cause the opposite of stress by having a spirit of gratefulness that permeates our being, even when all is not perfect in our worlds? Experiencing, recognizing and most of all being thankful for “blessings”, can result in the opposite of stress and the continuing science of Positive Psychology is proving it can lead to a host of encouraging outcomes, from fewer illnesses and higher immune response to more expansive thinking and creative problem solving. Other studies have found that gratitude can boost your immune system. Researchers at the universities of Utah and Kentucky observed that stressed-out law students who characterized themselves as optimistic had more disease-fighting cells in their bodies.
Professor Emmons said there’s even more evidence. Stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people. And having a daily gratitude practice, such as keeping a gratitude journal could reduce the effects of aging to the brain. Being thankful has such a profound effect because of the feelings that go along with it.
Many research studies lead to similar conclusions that people who kept a daily gratitude journal reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm and energy, than those who journaled about hassles or neutral events. This was the case even among people with neuromuscular disease. An appreciative attitude can have physical health benefits. One study showed that people who were instructed to focus on appreciation for five minutes had better heart rhythms, than did those who were told to think about anger for the same five minutes. Another study of 180 nuns over time, who wrote about being positive and appreciative early in life, lived on average 6-9 years longer than those who were pessimistic and negative.
It is unsurprising that psychology researchers eventually realized that gratitude should be studied. Before they did, though, another group of thinkers long preached the importance of gratitude: religious and spiritual leaders. Gratitude has long been recognized as an essential virtue in all the world’s great religious traditions. Scriptures from several traditions encourage everyone to express gratitude for God’s blessings and to practice gratitude in our daily lives. The Psalmist declares, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name.”
As we enter the holiday season, thankfulness is a timely topic. Our American forefathers probably had a better understanding which we seem to have lost along the way, when they set aside a day devoted to thanksgiving. Perhaps they did not know about the many health benefits, maybe they just knew intrinsically that it is good to give thanks. Regardless of your heritage, age, religion, or circumstances, you have within you the power to allow you to live a life of satisfaction, security, and optimism. That power begins with these two little words: thank you.