Gratitude is Good for Your Mental Health and Heart
New Year’s resolutions often include losing weight, improving financial health, and enhancing mental health. If the last item is also on your list, practicing gratitude might be a good idea. A study has shown that this simple practice is beneficial not only for mental health but also for heart health.
Gratitude has been defined in various ways throughout history. In most circles, gratitude was extolled as a virtue. Nowadays, health experts recognize the health benefits of gratitude. Research published in the American Heart Association Journals has demonstrated that optimism and a sense of purpose can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. And gratitude is an intervention that is particularly easy to implement.
Researchers have identified two types of gratitude. One is state gratitude, which refers to being thankful when one has been helped in specific situations. The other is dispositional gratitude, which refers to an individual’s inclination to appreciate the good in life. Both types of gratitude can improve cardiovascular health.
Gratitude decreases stress levels
It's been scientifically proven that gratitude can significantly impact our heart health. When we're grateful, we're better equipped to handle stress, which can have immediate and long-term effects on our hearts. Studies have shown that heart attacks are more likely to occur after natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or even stressful events like a soccer game.
Chronic stress, such as work-related stress, has also been linked to a 40% increase in the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. However, recent research has found that individuals with high levels of dispositional gratitude are less likely to experience a heart attack six years later.
Furthermore, the same research has also revealed that gratitude not only improves our cardiovascular stress response but also aids in our psychological stress recovery. So, it's always good to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have—it can help us lead a healthy and happy life.
Gratitude reduces inflammation
Research has shown that practicing gratitude regularly can have significant positive effects on cardiovascular health. Dispositional gratitude, or having a grateful outlook on life, has been linked to improved endothelial function and reduced inflammation. The endothelium is a thin membrane that lines the heart and blood vessels.
In one study, patients with asymptomatic heart failure were asked to incorporate a gratitude practice into their daily routine. They wrote down three to five things they appreciated every day. Surprisingly, this simple habit of expressing gratitude led to reduced inflammation in eight weeks. The findings suggest that cultivating gratitude can be a powerful tool for promoting heart health.
Gratitude allows one to make space for better relationships
It's been suggested that gratitude can help reduce stress, and one possible reason for this is that grateful people tend to have better relationships with others. Having a solid social support network has been recognized by organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being crucial to good health. Some psychologists believe that social relationships can be an even more critical factor than things like exercise in determining overall health.
On the flip side, loneliness and social isolation have been shown to have negative health consequences, with some studies suggesting that they can be as detrimental to our health as smoking when it comes to heart disease.
Gratitude encourages healthy habits
It's important to remember that gratitude isn't a replacement for healthy habits that can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, refraining from smoking, and getting enough sleep. However, a grateful outlook can be a powerful motivator to adopt these healthy behaviors.
A study conducted by Jeff Huffman, MD, a psychiatrist from Harvard, found that people who expressed higher levels of gratitude two weeks after experiencing a heart attack were more likely to continue taking their medications, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. They reported an overall improvement in their quality of life six months later. This is because when we appreciate the blessings in our lives, we're more likely to take care of our health.
How to be more grateful
If you are used to a gloomier mindset, hope is not lost. You’re not doomed to a life of negativity. You can train yourself to become more grateful and reap the benefits of this positive mindset.
Keep a gratitude journal
End your day by allotting some time to reflect on the day’s events and write down three to five things you’re grateful for. When done regularly, gratitude journaling helps retrain your mind to focus on the positive aspects of life. Plus, you get to end the day feeling pretty good about yourself.
If your nightly gratitude list feels a bit repetitive, you can use these prompts:
What is one thing that I take for granted?
As we live our daily lives, it’s easy to take things for granted. The basic things, such as electricity or the availability of clean water, consistently contribute to your overall well-being.
What am I grateful for at this moment?
When life feels bleak, pause and think about what you appreciate right now. It could be that first sip of hot coffee or a quiet moment at the beginning of a long day.
What’s something I recently accomplished?
We’re always in a hurry to tick off the next task on our to-do lists that we don’t pause and celebrate what we have done well. Relish your wins, no matter how small.
Send gratitude letters to other people
If you’d like to level up from gratitude journaling and benefit more from social connection, you can start writing letters or emails of gratitude to the people in your life. This way, you become closer to others while reflecting on the good things in your life.
The bottom line
Gratitude is such a simple thing to do, yet it offers excellent health benefits. The next time you feel stressed and anxious, take a moment and identify things you are grateful for. It’s a simple practice but has a huge positive impact, especially on your mental and heart health.