Updated: Sep 15, 2020
After 15 years of research, we know that gratitude is a key to psychological well-being. Gratitude can make people happier, improve their relationships, and potentially even counteract depression and suicidal thoughts. But could the benefits of gratitude go beyond that? Could gratitude be good for your physical health, too?
“Gratitude…can be an incredibly powerful and invigorating experience,” says researcher Jeff Huffman. “There is growing evidence that being grateful may not only bring good feelings. It could lead to better health.”
Do grateful people sleep better?
Sleep is vital for good health. Inadequate sleep puts strain on the body and increases your risk of developing obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions. But anyone who’s struggled with insomnia knows it’s not always so easy to get enough z’s. Perhaps surprisingly, studies suggest that boosting your gratitude might be a relatively easy way to improve your slumber.
People with heart failure and chronic pain who are more grateful report sleeping better, despite their condition, than less grateful patients. In a study of 401 people, 40 percent of whom had clinically impaired sleep, more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day. This study also found evidence that more grateful people sleep better because they have fewer negative thoughts and more positive ones at bedtime.
You don’t have to be a natural gratitude guru to get good sleep. Evidence suggests that just performing gratitude exercises can help. In one study, people with neuromuscular disease who kept a daily gratitude journal for three weeks reported sleeping significantly longer at night and feeling significantly more refreshed than people in the control group. And in a 2016 study, women who kept a gratitude journal for two weeks reported slightly better daily sleep quality compared to women who performed other tasks.
Is gratitude good for your heart?
Gratitude feels heartwarming, and a growing body of work suggests that gratitude might help keep our actual hearts healthy, too.
This line of research began in 1995, when a study found that people feeling appreciation (an emotion related to gratitude) have improved heart rate variability, an indicator of good heart health. In a more recent study, women who kept a gratitude journal where they wrote about “previously unappreciated people and things in their lives” for two weeks ended up with lower blood pressure than those who wrote about daily events. Together, these and other results suggest that feeling gratitude can be good for healthy hearts.
Gratitude may even help patients recover from a heart attack. In the Gratitude Research in Acute Coronary Events (GRACE) study by Jeff Huffman and colleagues, more optimistic and more grateful people showed signs of improved blood vessel function two weeks—though not six months—after being hospitalized for heart attacks, compared to less grateful patients. Unlike optimism, though, gratitude didn’t seem to improve patients’ physical activity levels or their likelihood of being readmitted to the hospital. A follow-up study found that people who were more grateful or optimistic two weeks after their heart attack were more likely to follow their doctors’ recommendations six months later.
This week try a couple of these easy gratitude exercises. Keep a gratitude journal or reflect on all of previously unappreciated people in your life. Not only will it help you feel better, it just may improve your health as well.