Health & Wellness

Be thankful: Science says gratitude is good for your health

If you need one more reason to be thankful this holiday, here it is. More and more researchers are finding that gratitude doesn’t just make you feel like a better person, it’s actually good for your health.

“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. “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 actually had better heart health, specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.

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Watch these kids remind us what Thanksgiving should really be all about

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Watch these kids remind us what Thanksgiving should really be all about

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“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.”

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Another study 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 actually had more disease-fighting cells in their bodies.

But Emmons said there’s even more evidence.

People who keep a gratitude journal have a reduced dietary fat intake — as much as 25 percent lower. Stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people. And having a daily gratitude practice could actually reduce the effects of aging to the brain.

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Being thankful has such a profound effect because of the feelings that go along with it, Emmons said.

“Gratitude works because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system.”

Research shows that when we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered and that can have protective benefits on the body, including decreasing cortisol levels and perhaps increasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel so good.

But if you’re still not feeling the love, experts say gratitude is something you can learn.

“Some people may not be grateful by nature but it is a habit you can get accustomed to,” said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and author of “Winter Blues.”

RELATED: The worst thing imaginable happened — but here's why I remain thankful

“One very good way is being aware of comparing up. It’s a formula for unhappiness because you can always find a person who is more advantaged than you are.”

Mills says all you have to do is think about being grateful and you’ll become more grateful.

A good way to do that is by journaling.

“Some people say they don’t have anything to be grateful for,” Mills said. “If you take such a person to find one little thing to be grateful for and focus on that, you find over time that the feeling of gratitude can transform the way they see their lives.”

This story originally published in November 2015. Felix Gussone contributed reporting. For more health advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.

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