Gratitude Is Good For The Soul And Helps The Heart, Too

Nov 23, 2015
Originally published on November 23, 2015 4:27 pm

As we launch into Thanksgiving week, consider this: Research shows that feeling grateful doesn't just make you feel good. It also helps — literally helps — the heart.

A positive mental attitude is good for your heart. It fends off depression, stress and anxiety, which can increase the risk of heart disease, says Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Mills specializes in disease processes and has been researching behavior and heart health for decades. He wondered if the very specific feeling of gratitude made a difference, too.

So he did a study. He recruited 186 men and women, average age 66, who already had some damage to their heart, either through years of sustained high blood pressure or as a result of heart attack or even an infection of the heart itself. They each filled out a standard questionnaire to rate how grateful they felt for the people, places or things in their lives.

It turned out the more grateful people were, the healthier they were. "They had less depressed mood, slept better and had more energy," says Mills.

And when Mills did blood tests to measure inflammation, the body's natural response to injury, or plaque buildup in the arteries, he found lower levels among those who were grateful — an indication of better heart health.

So Mills did a small follow-up study to look even more closely at gratitude. He tested 40 patients for heart disease and noted biological indications of heart disease such as inflammation and heart rhythm. Then he asked half of the patients to keep a journal most days of the week, and write about two or three things they were grateful for. People wrote about everything, from appreciating children to being grateful for spouses, friends, pets, travel, jobs and even good food.

After two months, Mills retested all 40 patients and found health benefits for the patients who wrote in their journals. 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. Those results have been submitted to a journal, but aren't yet published.

Mills isn't sure exactly how gratitude helps the heart, but he thinks it's because it 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."

And helps keep our hearts healthy.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now as we begin this Thanksgiving week, this piece of research caught our eye. Gratitude is good for the heart. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers know a positive mental attitude is good for your health. It fends off depression, stress and anxiety. But UC San Diego neurophysiologist Paul Mills, who's worked with heart patients for years, wondered if the very specific feeling of gratitude could help the heart. So he recruited patients who already had some damage to their heart.

PAUL MILLS: Either through years of sustained high blood pressure or as a result of a heart attack or even an infection in the heart itself.

NEIGHMOND: A total of 186 men and women, average age 66, filled out standard questionnaires rating how grateful they felt for people, places or things in their life. It turned out the more grateful people were the healthier they were.

MILLS: Those patients had less depressed mood, slept better, had more energy.

NEIGHMOND: And when Mills did blood tests to measure inflammation, the body's natural response to injury or plaque buildup in the arteries, he found lower levels among those who were grateful. And because these patients are sort of midway in the development of heart disease, this could be an important window of opportunity to intervene and stop the disease from progressing on to a heart attack or heart failure. So Mills did a follow-up study to look even more closely at gratitude. He tested patients for heart disease, and then asked them to keep a daily journal.

MILLS: We asked them for most days of the week please sit down and write down two or three things that you are grateful for. And you can write a few sentences. You can write paragraphs, pages, whatever you're inspired to do.

NEIGHMOND: People wrote about appreciating children, spouses, friends, jobs, pets, travel. After two months, Mills tested them again and found that writing about gratitude actually reduced their heart disease risk, inflammation decreased and heart rhythm improved. Mills isn't sure exactly how gratitude helps the heart, but he thinks it's because it reduces stress, a huge factor in heart disease.

MILLS: By focusing on those things that you can feel grateful for and acknowledging their presence in your life and letting that sense of gratitude wash over you, that very much helps us manage and cope.

NEIGHMOND: So Mills says take a little time every day to think about what you're grateful for, and you could be helping your heart. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.