Keys to Healthy Aging – Part Three:  Gratitude

by Robin Bush, ISR Communications

Do you take time to be grateful for what’s going well in your life? Recognizing the good things helps us navigate challenges and focus on what is rather than what is not. Gratitude is vital to healthy aging. It’s good for your mental and physical health. It reduces isolation, supports generosity, compassion, and forgiveness, is invigorating and uplifting, reduces stress, supports optimism and happiness, strengthens your immune system, lowers blood pressure, improves heart health, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves sleep patterns.

If you haven’t incorporated a gratitude practice into your life, consider starting one…today. It’s a daily practice with two parts, saying thank you every time someone does something for you and taking time to remind yourself of the things you are grateful for. To grow your gratitude, many folks keep a daily gratitude journal writing, “I am grateful for… my friends, family, eyesight, a new knee, sunshine, a caregiver, an idea a friend shared.…”  To feel gratitude, some people spend a few minutes in nature each day to pause from everyday life, contemplate, and gain perspective. Others find volunteering connects them to their sense of gratitude. Helping someone is a great way to recognize all you have yourself and all you have to give, which improves your mental outlook.

Stop, close your eyes. Take a few moments to reflect on what you are grateful for. Think of five things you are grateful for today. You’ll begin to smile and feel more connected and supported as you recognize that no matter life’s challenges, there is still so much to be grateful for. Being grateful regularly changes how we perceive the value of being alive today. 

Gratitude has been extensively studied for its wide-ranging impacts on health and aging. For instance, any time you express gratitude, you improve your heart health (reducing the likelihood of congestive heart failure and coronary heart disease (American College of Cardiology) and the quality and duration of your sleep (Journal of Psychosomatic Research). Another found that expressing gratitude facilitates social connection, which is vital to your well-being (University of New South Wales and Gonzaga University).

In a speech by Robert Emmons, Ph.D., research expert on gratitude and professor of psychology at U.C. Davis, he asks, “Why does gratitude have transformative effects on people’s lives?”  Here are excerpts of his answers:

“Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present and magnifies positive emotions. Gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we do, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted. Gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures we get from life. We spend so much time watching things—movies, computer screens, sports—but with gratitude, we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.

Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, and regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. There’s even evidence by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression. You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time. These are incompatible feelings. If you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for having something you don’t.

Grateful people are more stress resistant. Studies show that in the face of severe trauma, adversity, and suffering, people recover more quickly if they have a grateful disposition. In addition, gratitude gives people a perspective from which they can interpret adverse life events and help them guard against post-traumatic stress and lasting anxiety.

Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When you’re grateful, you sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people responsible for helping you get to where you are right now. Once you recognize the contributions others have made to your life and the value they have seen in you, you can transform the way you see yourself.”

If you missed our articles, Healthy Aging Part One – Change, or Part Two – A Sense of Purpose, you can read them on our website blog.

Books to learn more: “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” or “Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional  Prosperity” by Robert Emmons