Someone holds the door open for you; a barista hands over your steaming cup of liquid fuel, your coworker compliments your new sweater. These are all circumstances that may instantly elicit a response of gratefulness, a simple “thank you,” or a smile to acknowledge the gesture. You likely say “thank you” as much as five times a day. But how often do you mean it? How often do you take time out of your busy day to bask in those feelings of gratitude? Research suggests it probably isn’t as often as it should be.
“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”–William Arthur Ward
Thankfulness shouldn’t be a reflex or an afterthought; it should be the driving force that motivates us through our day. After all, it could improve your physical wellbeing and even help extend your lifespan. Gratitude doesn’t cost anything and is an incredible yet underrated remedy for many ailments, including heart conditions.
What does gratitude mean?
Gratitude is a habit, a way of thinking that focuses on the positive in your life rather than the negative. The key is what you choose to dwell on. Your mind is not an entity outside of your control. You can direct your attitude and cultivate gratitude, even when circumstances may be hard. However, it won’t happen overnight. The physical, emotional, and mental benefits of gratitude are far-reaching, but it may take time and practice to develop these habits and rest in a grateful mindset.
How gratitude is good for your heart
It is a long-accepted fact that stress, controlling behavior, anxiety, hostility, and depression can contribute to heart conditions. These negative mental states have been connected to heart health for decades, with numerous studies evaluating their damaging effects on this hardworking muscle. However, scientists have only recently started evaluating the benefits of positive mental health, specifically gratitude, and its relation to cardiovascular health. Being grateful can affect your heart in these three incredible ways.
Reduces inflammation that can hamper heart health
A study of 186 men and women with stage B asymptomatic heart failure showed that gratitude played a huge role in physical health and decreased inflammation in the body. In this study, patients had been diagnosed with structural heart disease, putting them in a higher risk category, but had no current or prior symptoms of heart failure.
This study looked at the connection between general spirituality or gratitude and markers of heart disease in the body. Researchers found that patients who expressed higher feelings of gratitude on various questionnaires were healthier and had less chronic inflammation than those who did not demonstrate as much thankfulness.
Increases heart rate variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) measures the variation of time between heartbeats and is an important indicator of overall heart health. This variation is directly controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), an involuntary system that is constantly at work, regulating heartbeat, breathing, narrowing and widening of blood vessels, and digestion. HRV is a reflection of the state of the ANS, and when it is lower, the body is generally at a higher risk of heart failure.
Researchers performed a small pilot study to determine the effects of gratitude on heart health. They asked participants to keep a gratitude journal, writing daily entries over one or two things they were grateful for. After two months, those who kept the gratitude journal showed increased HRV compared to the control group who were not actively pursuing a grateful mindset.
Improves overall well-being
Scientists generally divide happiness into two branches: hedonic happiness, which is pleasure and life satisfaction, and eudaimonic well-being, or meaning and purpose in life. Research shows that gratitude can increase both types of happiness while reducing stress and depression, decreasing risk factors for heart disease. By improving an overall sense of well-being, gratitude also helps protect cardiovascular health.
Other ways thankfulness can improve your health
Stressful, racing thoughts are one of the leading causes of insomnia. Chronic stress, specifically, can be incredibly detrimental, as it causes the body to remain heightened, with the stress hormone cortisol raging unchecked through your body, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This can hamper sleep quality and decrease your ability to fall asleep at night.
Thankfulness helps reset the body and hormonal state, making you more balanced and peaceful. One study of 119 women showed the effects of gratitude on physical health. In this study, these college-aged women were asked to practice the “well-being intervention” of keeping a gratitude journal over two weeks. Data showed that the women keeping the journal reported better sleep and lowered diastolic blood pressure than the control group.
How to be more grateful
Keep a gratitude journal
Taking time to write down everything you are grateful for is an excellent mental exercise that can help instill habits of gratitude and allow you to see the silver lining in your circumstances. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and just let your thoughts flow. Don’t worry about spelling, handwriting, or grammar; this journal is for your eyes only and is merely a way to acknowledge and express the many things in your life that you can be thankful for.
Go out of your way to thank people
Instead of just blurting out an instinctual “thank you” and leaving it at that, take the time to follow up and truly express how much the important people in your life mean to you. Write a short note, send flowers, or buy or make a small gift. It doesn’t have to be a grand, expensive gesture, just something to let them know you are thankful for them.
Mindfulness and gratitude are closely interconnected. Pursue a quiet moment each day where you can be alone with your thoughts and be present in your body. Leave your cellphone in the other room, turn down the lights, and spend five minutes in quiet reflection.
You can lay down on your bed, sit in a chair, or simply stretch out on the floor and allow your whole body to relax. During this time, turn your focus inward, allow yourself to be present in the current moment, and settle into your thoughts, directing them towards thankfulness. Take stock of the things and people in your life that deserve thanks and quietly, actively exercise appreciation.
Thank your body
Being thankful isn’t just about expressing outward gratitude. Take stock of all of the things in your body that are working hard to keep you alive and healthy. Your heart, lungs, and brain, which work tirelessly to give you movement, breath, and life, are often unrecognized and unappreciated.
Thank your body by looking after it and giving it the fuel it needs to continue supporting you. Exercise, eat real, whole, and organic foods, spend time basking in the sun, and get a massage or soak your feet. Your body does a lot for you. It’s time to do something in return.
Change your perspective
Sometimes, the best way to find moments of thankfulness in your life is to look at those less fortunate than yourself and recognize all of the privileges you have in life. Use this opportunity of recognition to help where you can and practice empathy. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or simply bring a meal to a needy friend.
It is never too late to start cultivating healthy habits to improve your health, mindset, and relationships with the important people in your life. Intentional gratitude is one of the easiest ways to achieve your 100 Year Heart and keep you on the path of health. Prioritize thankfulness. It may just save your life.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD