This is a Thanksgiving like no other. It is too easy to overlook the priceless blessings of good health, family, friends, and freedom when they are in abundance. But disease swept the globe and took away with it so much of immeasurable value that we had taken for granted. We have all—here and around the world—suffered dreadful illness, the loss of loved ones, unemployment, and isolation, either directly or indirectly through our loved ones, friends, and colleagues. Last year, family and friends could not gather safely for Thanksgiving. This year we can. This holiday, with its silly but beloved traditions of gluttony steeped in folklore, is unique in honoring a fragile human emotion: gratitude.
Gratitude is what builds society, binding individuals together through thanks. Research shows that the emotion of gratitude also brings with it personal psychological and physiological benefits. A new study published online in advance of print by David Newman, Amie Gordon, and Wendy Mendes, psychologists at the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan, add new data showing the tangible mental and physical health benefits of gratitude. They did this research not by using advanced brain imaging, optogenetics, or other sophisticated equipment, but instead by using a cellphone app.
The cellphone app had an optical sensor that could measure blood pressure, heart rate, and also allow participants to report their present feelings of gratitude, stress, and other emotions. The participants were asked questions three times a day for 21 days, between March 15, 2019 and December 8, 2020. People participated from around the United States, Europe, and Asia, comprising 4,825 test subjects in all.
Gratitude was measured by responses to questions, such as, “I have so much in life to be thankful for,” and “I am grateful to a wide variety of people.” Participants quantified their responses on a 7-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” so that the results could be analyzed statistically. Similar questions were asked to assess other psychological aspects, such as feelings of stress. An advantage of this approach is that assessments did not rely upon people recalling and accurately reporting past experiences. Memory is fallible, but the real-time interview assessment by cellphone accurately records physiological data with the present emotional feelings.
After crunching the numbers, the data showed that gratitude and bodily health measures were tightly interlinked. Feelings of gratitude were associated with significantly lower average heart rate and blood pressure, better sleep quality, and lower stress.
The researchers also assessed feelings of optimism, which differs from feelings of gratitude in that optimism relates to the future, whereas gratitude relates to the present. Feelings of optimism also predicted positive physiological and psychological benefits, and the two emotions worked together, as shown by a statistical analysis of how these two emotions interact with the measured outcomes.
The authors conclude, “Gratitude was a stronger predictor of the ratings of the best part of the day than optimism…This may be a key factor in explaining why gratitude is positively related to well-being and health.”
Gratitude is good medicine.
First published in Psychology Today