The healing power of gratitude
Last year, I felt compelled to bake brownies for complete strangers to say 'thank you'.
I’d had to call 999 because I found my partner unconscious on the floor. Within minutes, a police car and an ambulance arrived, filled with first responders who whisked my partner away to the nearest hospital, where he received the critical care he needed.
A week later, still marvelling at the kindness of strangers, I wrote thank-you notes to those helpful first responders and baked for them. It was a small gesture with a big impact. When I dropped off still-warm brownies at the police and fire stations, they thanked me for delivering gifts. Thanking me? All I’d done was bake; they’d saved a life.
I drove away feeling light and happy, partly because I’d done a good deed, but mostly because I was amazed that there are selfless people who do life- saving work and expect nothing in return.
Later, I realised that my natural high might have been more than it seemed. Research has shown that sharing thoughts of gratitude and performing acts of kindness can boost your mood and have other positive effects on your health.
“We know from studies that gratitude really does have an impact on happiness, that it increases life satisfaction,” says Willibald Ruch, a psychology professor at the University of Zurich who researches the effects of character strengths such as gratitude and humour. “It’s among the top five predictors of happiness.”
You can make positive life changes by embracing gratitude. Here’s how:
A good-for-you sentiment
When you feel thankful for things you’ve received or something that’s happened, that’s gratitude. It’s impossible to feel it in a vacuum; others are always responsible, whether they’re loved ones, strangers or a higher power. “Gratitude is how you relate to others, when you see yourself in connection with things larger than yourself,” Ruch says.
Nowadays, too many people don’t stop to appreciate what they have, much less express gratitude. Our instant-gratification lifestyle may be to blame.
“With commercial and social media, everything is speeding the younger generation to make them feel that they’re the centre of the universe,” says Tamiko Zablith, founder of the London-based etiquette consulting firm Minding Manners. “If it’s all about them, why thank others?”
Why not thank others? Studies have shown that people who express gratitude increase their happiness levels, lower their blood pressure levels, get better-quality sleep, improve their relationships, have a positive impact on their depression levels and are less affected by pain.
"People who have higher levels of gratitude also report sleeping better."
And gratitude’s positive effects are long-lasting. Canadian researchers found that people who wrote letters of thanks or performed good deeds for a mere six-week period were able to improve their mental health, decrease their bodily pain, feel more energetic and accomplish more daily tasks for up to six months.
Because gratitude is a relatively new field of study, researchers are trying to identify its cause-and-effect relationship with health benefits.
“We know that people who have higher levels of gratitude also report sleeping better, but we don’t really know why,” says Alex Wood, professor of psychology and director of the Behavioural Science Centre at the University of Stirling. “Is gratitude leading to better sleep? Is sleep leading to more gratitude? Or could it be some third variable that leads to both gratitude and improved sleep?”
Gratitude can benefit people during all stages of life. Swedish researchers have found that people aged 77 to 90 who are thankful for what they have are less likely to dwell on the chance that they may grow frail.
“When they can’t change something, they choose gratitude and focus on what’s good: walking on their own legs, still being alive and living by themselves,” says study author Helena Hörder, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg. “Maybe it’s some kind of confidence that you can cope with this and focus on the right things.”
Making someone else’s day
What about gratitude recipients? Research has confirmed that people who receive messages of thanks or acts of kindness experience positive emotions when they’re singled out.
“Those are happy surprises, you’re not expecting coffee or for someone to hold the door open for you,” says Jo-Ann Tsang, associate professor of psychology at Baylor University in Texas. “You’re more likely to feel grateful if you receive help that’s unexpected. It’s different if a doorman holds the door than a stranger because that’s not their job.”
When someone is the recipient of unexpected kindness or gratitude, he’s more likely to return the favour or pass kindness on. One study found that when someone is thanked, it more than doubles his chances of being helpful again, probably because he enjoys feeling socially valued.
Zablith likes the reaction she gets when she rewards a stranger who holds the door open for her at Starbucks with his rightful place in line in front of her.
“The look on his face is shock,” says Zablith. “He’ll be nicer to the cashier, the next person he sees at work. There’s a trickle-down effect.”
The give-and-take of gratitude can also deepen relationships. Studies show that when your partner regularly expresses gratitude, making you feel appreciated, you’re more likely to return appreciative, grateful feelings and stay committed to each other. One found that sharing gratitude with a partner makes you feel more responsible for his well-being and more satisfied with the relationship.
“You feel closer to the other person, and they feel closer to you,” Tsang says. “That creates an upward spiral.”
If you aren’t particularly grateful, you can learn to be. People who are instructed to keep gratitude journals, in which they write down three positive things that happen to them each day, cultivate gratitude over time.
“Initially, people have some difficulty remembering what good things have happened.” Ruch says. “But if every evening you write them down, you experience those things more intensively. Your brain gradually gets trained into a more appreciative mode, so the sense to be grateful increases.
“Gratitude training came to my aid during the dark times.”
“Even when our training is over, people still continue with this exercise, because they find it so rewarding. People enjoy looking up what happened a few weeks ago. It becomes a book of nice memories.”
Samuel Coster began a gratitude journal three years ago. When he was diagnosed with lymphoma a year later, it helped carry him through his illness.
“Gratitude training certainly came to my aid during the dark times,” Coster says. “Did I get cancer? Yep. Did I also get to hang out with my family way more, gain a greater appreciation for life and get a few cool scars? Yep. And that’s the part I focus on.”