Practicing gratitude can have profound health benefits
It’s a Thanksgiving tradition in many U.S. families, but you might be surprised to learn that the simple exercise can have dramatic benefits.
For those who can resist diving into the turkey and mashed potatoes for a few minutes to share their thanks first, evidence indicates that gratitude can boost health and well-being.
“Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health,” said alumnus Glenn Fox. An expert in the science of gratitude at USC Marshall School of Business, Fox is head of program design, strategy and outreach at the USC Performance Science Institute.
Fox earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience while working at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Brain and Creativity Institute. “The limits to gratitude’s health benefits are really in how much you pay attention to feeling and practicing gratitude,” he said.
You might get a warm glow from expressing gratitude once a year at Thanksgiving. To truly derive long-lasting benefits, though, experts say you should make it a part of your daily or weekly routine. Scientific evidence from gratitude research backs up a few typical approaches, including saying thanks to people who don’t expect it and writing down a few things each day that make you grateful.
“It’s very similar to working out, in that the more you practice, the better you get,” Fox said. “The more you practice, the easier it is to feel grateful when you need it.”
Links to health, social bonding and stress relief
Fox first started researching gratitude as a doctoral student at USC Dornsife. Some people scoffed at his interest in the emotion, which had received little attention from researchers. But he pressed forward with what would become the first study of how gratitude manifests in the brain.
He found links between gratitude and brain structures also tied to social bonding, reward and stress relief. Other studies have bolstered his findings, revealing connections between the tendency to feel grateful and a chemical called oxytocin that promotes social ties.
Research on gratitude has also found associations with other health benefits, including general well-being, better sleep, more generosity and less depression. Fox said it makes sense that gratitude is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective.
“Gratitude is such a key function of our social lives and our evolution as a species,” he said. “People who did not develop gratitude or grateful relationships with others, it’s very unlikely they would have survived in a social context.”
Tips on practicing gratitude
So what are some proven techniques to becoming a more grateful person? Fox said gratitude research has shown that some of the most effective approaches include maintaining a gratitude journal, penning personal thank-you notes and regularly expressing gratitude to others in person.
Fox suggested experimenting to find the method that works best. Stick with something for a few weeks and note any improvements in how you feel. For him, spending a few minutes each day before winding down for bed is the most effective approach. He might write in his gratitude journal, practice guided meditation, call someone to express thanks or write a note to a friend.
“It helps create a buffer and helps me sleep a little better,” he said. “It’s not that you’ll never have a restless night again or you won’t feel stressed. The whole point is that, for that time, you’ve spared yourself a little bit of the anxiety of the day.”
As for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Fox said there’s no wrong way to practice gratitude. Going around the table to share thanks, writing positive messages to others or simply taking the time to connect with friends and family are all good ways to get started.
“What other holiday is built on recognizing things we are grateful for?” he said. “I just don’t think you can go wrong.”