When most people think about Thanksgiving, they focus on food, family and football-watching. But putting the “thanks” back into Thanksgiving is a good start in improving your heart health, researchers say.
“Somebody once said a grateful heart is a healthier heart, and that’s what we saw in this study,” said Paul Mills, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at the University of California-San Diego whose study was published last year by the American Psychology Association.
Mills and his team studied 186 men and women with asymptomatic (Stage B) heart failure to see how their sense of thankfulness and gratitude affected their overall health. First, they focused on psychological health and found that patients who expressed higher levels of gratitude had less depression, less anxiety and slept better.
Next, they turned to the heart. Using blood tests, they discovered that the patients with more gratitude had lower levels of inflammation and better heart health.
“That was a lovely surprise,” Mills said. “Based on past literature, we thought people that had more gratitude would have a better sense of well-being, but we didn’t expect to see changes in the biology as well.”
The study didn’t surprise Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at University of California-Davis, author of The Little Book of Gratitude (Gaia, 2016), and a researcher who has spent decades studying the effects of gratitude.
“Gratitude is good medicine,” Emmons said. “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure and improve immune function … grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and have higher rates of medication adherence.”
Defining gratitude can be tricky. Webster’s New World Dictionary describes it as “a feeling of thankful appreciation for favors or benefits received; thankfulness.” But Mills said he and other researchers consider thankfulness to be just one component of gratitude.
“Thankfulness is when we feel thankful for specific things—thankful that I have a roof over my head or that I just ate a good meal. With gratitude, it isn’t that we’re grateful for any one thing. It’s more a state of our soul, of just being grateful for our existence,” Mills said. “As people cultivate thoughts and feelings of thankfulness, it moves their consciousness away from just thankfulness into actual gratitude regardless of what they do or don’t have.”
Emmons defined gratitude as “a trait, a state, an attitude, a way of coping and a virtue all rolled into one. Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self,” he said.
Perhaps the only thing harder than defining gratitude is actually practicing it.
“Busyness, forgetfulness and a sense of entitlement all diminish possibilities for gratitude,” said Emmons, who suggested the people “take life ‘as granted’ rather than ‘for granted.’ Instead of saying ‘I have to do this’ try saying ‘I get to do this.’ Sense that you are lucky or graced rather than deserving of good fortune. Repeat the phrase to yourself ‘I am gifted.’ ”
Mills suggested a more concrete approach: Write it down.
As part of his study, Mills asked participants to keep a journal of things they were grateful for. After two months of journaling, their heart health improved, including reductions in circulating levels of inflammatory biomarkers and improved heart rate variability.
“Journaling about gratitude is a reliable exercise. The more things you can identify, the more your perception of well-being begins to change,” Mills said.
After awhile, people become so grateful they no longer need to write down their feelings, he said.
“Gratitude journaling can lead to a more permanent transformation in a person’s mind and psyche,” Mills said. “They sense gratitude more continuously and then they stop journaling because they’ve made the transition—they’ve changed how they view their moment-to-moment life and the world around them.”
Originally appeared on American Heart Association News