Shifting into gratitude not only feels great, research shows that it is powerfully healing.
People who knew the extraordinarily prolific and influential writer G. K. Chesterton consistently described him as "exuberant" and "exhilarated" by life. What was his secret? He delighted in the ordinary and was surprised and awed by existence—his own and all else's. In a letter to his fiancee he wrote, "I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud."
In short, Chesterton knew and practiced what many of us sense intuitively but fail to act on—the power of gratitude. Fifty years ago, Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, also recognized the power of gratitude to recharge the soul: He counted the capacity to "appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others" as a central gift of what he called "self-actualizing individuals."
And yet nowadays we tend to dismiss gratitude as merely a polite social convention or an occasional warm feeling. Modern psychologists have to take much of the blame, I'm afraid. We've spent too many years focusing on negative emotions—such as depression, anxiety, and hostility. Now that we're finally paying serious attention to positive states—and are gathering solid data on their profound effect on mental, physical, and spiritual well-being—it's time to get out the word that it's good to feel good.
My colleagues and I are finding that gratitude, which we define as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life, is more than simply a pleasant emotion to experience or a polite sentiment to express. It is, or at least can be, a basic disposition, one that seems to make lives happier, healthier, more fulfilling—and even longer.
Recent (2002) psychological research shows that:
- a person experiencing gratitude is protected from the destructive impulses of envy and greed;
- the practice of gratitude as a spiritual discipline may cure excessive materialism and its attendant negative emotions of envy, resentment, disappointment, and bitterness;
- gratitude supports well-being by displacing resentment, regret, and other psychological states deleterious to long-term happiness; and
- grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions—happiness, vitality, optimism, and hope—and greater satisfaction with life.
Grateful Heart, Healthy Heart?
Gratitude seems to affect physical health, as well. Rollin McCraty and his colleagues at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, have found that consciously experiencing appreciation increases parasympathetic activity, a change thought to be beneficial in controlling stress and hypertension (click on "Read more" at the end of this article). Research at the University of Pittsburgh found that heart-transplant recipients who practiced thankfulness and appreciation as aspects of their religious faith felt better and had fewer difficulties with diet and medications one year after the operation. In the famous "nun study," University of Kentucky researchers analyzed the emotional content in autobiographies from 180 Roman Catholic nuns at age 22. Six decades later, the ones most likely to still be alive were the ones who expressed the most positive emotions (gratitude, contentment, hope, etc.). In fact, they found nearly a seven-year difference in longevity between the happiest and the least happy nuns.
Not surprisingly, the great spiritual traditions all teach the value of gratitude, and gratitude in turn helps one become more spiritual. Just as a grateful person recognizes the positive contributions of other people to one's well-being, people with grateful dispositions may also be oriented toward recognition of non-human forces that might contribute to their well-being in a broader, more existential sense (luck, chance, God, or some other conception of the divine).
New data continues to pour in, but already it appears that 21st-century research will confirm what the wonderful G. K. Chesterton wrote back in 1908: "The test of all happiness is gratitude. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he puts in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?"
One is never lacking in opportunities to be happy, according to Chesterton, because around every corner is another gift waiting to surprise us.
A 10-second Practice More Powerful than Meditation?
Some former meditators at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, have been studying a 10-second practice that may turn out to be as beneficial to body and mind as 20 minutes of meditation. This practice, called Freeze-Frame, appears to be at the heart of the physiology of gratitude.
The theory behind HeartMath and Freeze-Frame is that the heart has a mind of its own. Like the brain, the heart turns out to have its own vast network of neurons and secretes its own hormones, including the bonding hormone oxytocin. According to HeartMath, the secret to health and happiness is to do what the preachers and poets have been saying all along: get your heart and head in sync. While the physiology linking these two "brains" is enormously complex, the practice called Freeze-Frame turns out to be remarkably simple. We'll have more about this in our next issue, but here's what to do right now — and whenever you start feeling stressed.
- Recognize the stressful feeling.
- Close your eyes and make a sincere effort to shift your focus away from your racing mind or disturbed emotions to the area around your heart. You can pretend that you're breathing through your heart to help focus your energy in this area. Keep the focus there for ten seconds or more.
- Recall a positive, loving feeling — a time you've truly appreciated being alive — and attempt to re-experience it as deeply as you can with colors, odors, and sounds.
- Now, using your intuition, common sense, and sincerity, ask your heart what would be a more efficient response to the situation, one that will minimize future stress.
- Listen to what your heart says in answer to your question. It's an effective way to put your reactive mind and emotions in check — and an in-house source of common-sense solutions.
We can be grateful to our families for how they support, nurture, and comfort us — and perhaps especially for the ways they challenge us.
Thanks to You, Dear Readers, Science Has a New Measure of Gratitude…
Feel welcome to try it out
To study anything effectively, you need to be able to measure it. So for the past two years, I have been working with Southern Methodist University's Michael E. McCullough and Jo-Ann Tsang to develop an accurate measure of gratitude, and to find out how people's gratitude scores relate to their own health and wellbeing. This research, which will be published in January 2002 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was conducted in part via an extensive questionnaire on SpiritualityHealth.com, as well as with groups of university students.
After analyzing the data, we were able to refine a measure of gratitude to six key factors. To understand the role gratitude plays in your own life, take a moment to complete the test below.
Practicing the Art of Counting Your Blessings: Your Daily Gratitude Journal
(A Proven Healer)
In one study at the University of California, Davis, where I teach, we examined the effect of counting your blessings regularly. We recruited three groups. One kept gratitude journals. One recorded daily hassles. The third wrote down neutral events. We found that the gratitude group exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than the other groups. They were also more likely to report helping someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to another. A second study found that the gratitude group enjoyed higher levels of alertness and energy than the others.
Want to try it? Here are the instructions we gave the gratitude groups:
"There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for." (We actually found that those who wrote in their gratitude journals daily got more benefits than those who did so weekly.)
Participants were grateful for: "waking up this morning," "the generosity of friends," "to God for giving me determination," "for wonderful parents," "to the Lord for just another day," and "to the Rolling Stones." God bless rock and roll! — RAE
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink. — G. K. Chesterton
Imagine bells ringing in the wind — in memory and in gratitude, (left) The Children's Bell Tower in Bodega Bay, California, was a gift from the Italian people to the parents of a young American boy murdered in Italy. One of the bells is engraved with the names of the boy and the seven Italian people whose lives were saved by the donation of the boy's organs. The largest bell is from the 1,000-year-old papal foundry and was blessed by the pope.