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December 19, 2016

The Surprising Health Benefits of Gratitude

by Amanda MacMillan

We all know how important it is to say thank you for the gifts we receive -- that’s just simple politeness. But it turns out that gratitude may be the best present of all, because research shows that nurturing an attitude of appreciation has surprising payoffs for your emotional and physical health.

“At this time of year, a lot of people come in with depression relating to loss and the holidays or stress and the holidays -- things like that,” says Bob Schaer, a social worker and manager of outpatient mental health at Staten Island University Hospital. “We try to really get them to focus on an alternative way of thinking: what you do have, and the people and things you’re thankful for. That can help you shift your emotional balance. Studies also show that gratitude can be good for your health in a lot of ways.”

Of course, it can be hard sometimes to put gratitude into practice, during the holidays or during the rest of the year. Schaer recommends writing down a few things you’re thankful for each day, getting in touch with your spiritual side or volunteering at a local soup kitchen or food pantry. (“It helps you appreciate what you have,” he says.)

Or you could simply make more of an effort to savor the moments of happiness in your life, he says, and say “thank you” to the people responsible for them. Here are some of the benefits you could reap:

It can protect your heart. In a study on people whose hearts showed signs of damage, whether from a heart attack or from problems like chronic high blood pressure, researchers found that those who scored higher on gratitude tests had lower levels of inflammation. That’s good, because chronic inflammation is known to contribute to heart disease and other health issues. What’s more, when patients kept gratitude journals for eight weeks, inflammation levels dropped, and so did heart disease risk.

It’s good for your marriage. People who feel valued and appreciated by their spouses are more committed to their marriages and less likely to get divorced, according to a 2015 study -- even if the couple is stressed or having trouble communicating.

It can win you new friends. A 2014 study found that saying thank you to a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek out a relationship with you. The health bonus: Research shows that having strong social connections can help keep you well.

It can help you sleep. When college students in a 2011 study journaled about positive events for 15 minutes in the early evening, they worried less and slept more soundly.