Gratitude is transformative if you make it a part of your daily life. One way to adopt the gratitude habit is to keep a gratitude journal where you document the things you're thankful for and that bring you happiness. It can also be as simple as being more mindful and noticing the small things that enrich your life and make your heart sing.
An old Vietnamese proverb sums it up perfectly:
"When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree."
So what does science say about health and gratitude? Here's what keeping a gratitude journal can do for your life.
Fewer Aches and Pains
Studies show that people who are grateful have fewer aches and pains and report overall better health. When your mind focuses on what you have and how you're blessed rather than what you lack, you're less likely to notice those annoying aches and pains. Why might this be? It's hard for the mind to focus on both negatives and positives at once. So, when you occupy your mind with gratitude, it overrides some of those pesky pain signals. It's also true that people who are grateful take better care of their health and may be less prone to pain for that reason.
Can gratitude and expressing that gratitude in a journal help you sleep better? One of the most popular times to write in a sleep journal is just before bedtime, but is there science behind this practice? A study published in Applied Psychology found that writing for 15 minutes in a gratitude journal before bedtime helped participants get a better night's sleep.
If you have trouble sleeping, spend the last quarter of an hour before sleep time writing in your gratitude journal. If you don't have time to write in-depth, make bullet points of people, events, and circumstances that you're grateful for. Going to sleep with a thankful mind can pay off with better-quality sleep.
Better Immune Health
Can keeping a gratitude journal boost immune health? Gratitude, when you practice it regularly, leads to greater optimism. That, in turn, may modify the activity of your immune system in ways that scientists don't entirely understand. One study of law students found those who were more optimistic had higher numbers of protective immune cells relative to those who had a more negative attitude. Acknowledging what you have to be grateful for and keeping a journal builds the optimism you need for optimal immune health.
Research shows that optimism and gratitude may also lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol rises, it reduces immune cell function. A healthy immune system is vital for lowering your risk of viral infections and even protects against cancer by better recognizing tumors as foreign invaders.
It's not surprising that gratitude and keeping a gratitude journal builds resilience (the ability to adapt to difficult situations), and resilience provides protection against mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. How does gratitude boost resilience? It builds greater awareness of the positive aspects of life and helps to reframe the perception of a negative situation. A study involving college students found those who practiced gratitude were more resilient when learning became challenging. When the going gets tough, get out your gratitude journal and let it help you refocus your mind on the positive.
Lower Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Inflammation is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease because it damages the inner wall blood vessels and increases the risk of blood clots. Studies that measure inflammatory markers in the bloodstream find those who are grateful have lower levels of these markers of inflammation. This may translate into a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, although more research is needed to confirm this.
For one study, researchers asked 40 people to keep a gratitude journal most days of the week for 2 months. Beforehand and after two months they measured inflammatory markers in the blood. Those who kept a gratitude journal had lower inflammatory markers and risk of cardiovascular disease.
It's not clear how gratitude lowers inflammatory markers, but it shows the close intertwinement of the immune system, brain, and heart. So, gratitude can make your heart happier but also healthier. Who wouldn't want that?
Gratitude Journaling: The Bottom Line
Don't forget that gratitude and keeping a gratitude journal increases overall happiness and well-being too. If you do it often, it can be a life-changer. So grab a pen, a journal, and a cup of coffee and write down what you're grateful for!
- NPR.org. "Gratitude Is Good For The Soul And Helps The Heart, Too"
- J Health Psychol. 2013 Feb;18(2):263-71. doi: 10.1177/1359105312439733. Epub 2012 Mar 12.
- Psychosom Med. 2016 Jul-Aug; 78(6): 667-676.doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000316.
- Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 16, No. 4, August 2016, pp.1-13.