Mind and Body

Gratitude is more than a feeling, it's a hack for better physical health

"This small intervention changed his life."


The act of “giving thanks” around Thanksgiving is one thing, but showing “dispositional gratitude” is more of a lifestyle. It involves a life where you count your blessings and see the people around you and your experiences as “gifts” to be thankful for. Studies show that living this way isn’t just something to do because it seems like the right thing to do — grateful people are often healthier people, both mentally and physically.

Although gratefulness is a historically understudied topic, a number of more recent studies indicate that it’s associated with better physical health. For example, in 2013, researchers surveyed 962 Swiss participants, who ranged in age from 19 to 84, about their psychological and physical health, what activities they did that related to health, and how often they felt gratitude. The scientists found a positive correlation between feeling dispositional gratitude and better self-reported physical health.

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People who did something good for themselves, like meeting up with friends, reported being healthier.Shutterstock

That finding was novel because the majority of gratitude studies focus on its psychological effects, not physical ones. Co-author Mathias Allemand, a professor at the University of Zurich, explained to me that the more grateful study participants tended to engage in healthy behaviors more often, which, understandably, made them healthier. Here, the healthy activities included eating well, avoiding excessive drinking, meeting up with friends, and simply doing something good for oneself.

“Grateful people are generally more grateful for their lives, and they often view their lives as a gift that should be appreciated,” Allemand says. Accordingly, when a person is more grateful for domains like one’s health or social life, they invest in those things. Previous studies have found that grateful people tend to report less anxiety, greater vitality, better emotional stability, and optimism. Furthermore, studies have found that grateful people report less stress and better sleeping habits.

"This small intervention changed his life."

It makes sense, Allemand notes, that if you’re experiencing all of those things, you’re more likely to be physically healthy as well. Psychological health is a predictor of physical health, and gratitude significantly predicts better mental health in the general population. It’s also known that gratitude motivates people to engage in positive behaviors that are linked to self-improvement

Keep a journal of things you're grateful for.Shutterstock

That may sound simple and nice, but it’s also true that it’s hard to be grateful all the time. Life can be exhausting. But if you do think that you want help feeling grateful more often, you can participate in a “gratitude intervention.” Allemand explains two “classical interventions.” One includes keeping a daily gratitude journal, where you note what you’re thankful for, and the other is writing a letter of gratitude to someone and then reading it aloud to that person.

He says that, in studies, results are mixed as to whether or not these inventions work. But it’s also true that when Allemand asked a man over 75 whether or not counting his blessings seemed to help, he replied that “this small intervention changed his life.”

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.