Both research and common sense tell us that people who practice gratitude are happier. As it turns out, they also tend to be healthier.
Writing it Down Makes a Difference
The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a free, online, gratitude journal Gratitude Journal | Practice | Greater Good in Action (berkeley.edu). The GGSC found that participants who kept the journal for two weeks reported better health, including “fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin and reduced congestion.”
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are famous for their research on the effects of gratitude. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they reported that participants who wrote down 5 things they were grateful for at the the end of each week experienced less physical discomfort than those who did not. 6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf (berkeley.edu)
Gratitude Appears to Improve Sleep and Exercise
In order to improve our health, experts repeatedly point to three important habits: good nutrition, adequate sleep and physical activity. In their research, Emmons and McCullough found that two out of three of these habits may improve with gratitude.
In one study, the pair found that gratitude was associated with more sleep and a better quality of sleep, as well as a greater sense of optimism. Could it be that by focusing on the positive instead of the negative in our lives, gratitude decreases stress (research has shown that it does) and helps us relax, so we sleep better?
Emmons and McCullough also found a positive association between gratitude and more time spent exercising. Physical inactivity is linked to one in ten deaths worldwide, so any increase in physical activity is extremely important. Unfortunately, their research did not indicate which comes first, exercise or gratitude. It is possible that one benefits the other. Exercise may increase gratitude at the same time that gratitude increases exercise.
Gratitude, Impulse Control and Binge Eating
In addition to sleep and exercise, a healthy diet is essential for good health.
A healthy diet depends on how much we eat as well as what we eat. The greater impulse control we have, the less likely we are to binge eat or to grab the instant gratification of unhealthy treats. A study published in Psychological Science indicates that gratitude is associated with an increased ability for “delayed gratification”. This means that we are better able to control sudden impulses.
While this study examined financial self-control, it may also apply to eating. If gratitude improves our impulse to binge eat, it could help us stick to a healthier diet. Further research is needed. Can Gratitude Reduce Costly Impatience? – Association for Psychological Science – APS
Gratitude and Taking Care of Ourselves
While exercise, sleep and good nutrition all help support good health, when people get sick, part of their recovery depends on how well they follow the advice of their healthcare provider. In other gratitude studies, patients who are more grateful have been shown to be more likely to follow provider recommendations more closely. Again, the mechanism is not clear and further research is needed.
With all of these potential health benefits, it’s not surprising that “gratitude journals” are so popular. By developing a habit of gratitude, we are practicing self-care for both our mental and physical well-being.