Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, already knew that gratitude helps fend off depression. He wondered if it could make a difference in physical health. So he decided to do a study. A much more rigorous study than the one I did with the “miracle” face cream.
Mills recruited a bunch of men and women who already had signs of heart disease. (186 people, average age 66) First he asked them to fill out a questionnaire to measure their level of gratitude. He found that the more grateful people were, the healthier they were. “They had less depressed mood, slept better and had more energy,” he said. Next he took some measurements. The people who seemed more grateful, according to the questionnaire, had lower levels of inflammation, “which is the body’s response to injury or plaque build up in arteries.” They also slept better, had more energy, and reported less periods of depressed moods.
The results were pretty interesting to Mills, so he did a small follow-up study with just 40 patients. He recorded some baseline heart disease data like inflammation and heart rhythm. He asked half the people to keep a journal of two or three things they were grateful for. After two months, Mills retested the 40 patients.
Inflammation levels were reduced, and heart rhythm improved. And when he compared their heart disease risk before and after journal writing, there was a decrease in risk after two months of writing in their journals.
Mills submitted the results to a journal and is waiting for publication. He thinks it’s because gratitude reduces stress, a huge factor in heart disease.
“Taking the time to focus on what you are thankful for,” he says, “letting that sense of gratitude wash over you — this helps us manage and cope.”
So taking a little time each week to count your blessings is not just good for your figurative heart, it’s good for your literal heart, too.