According to Science, Gratitude Can Save Your Life
The American Automotive Association (AAA) says that nearly 80-percent of US drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage while driving at least once a year. Our blog last week focused on Thanksgiving as America’s deadliest holiday with the two main causes of death being traffic accidents and coronary events such as as heart attacks. Both are linked with the aggression behind road rage.
However, science is finding that there is a link between gratitude and health. Maybe it’s about time to put the “Thanks” back in Thanksgiving.
Gratitude – What Science Says
“Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have extolled gratitude as a virtue integral to health and well-being. Now, through a recent movement called positive psychology, mental health professionals are taking a close look at how virtues such as gratitude can benefit our health,” said Robert Emmons, University of California Davis Psychology Professor and author of Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. “And they are reaping positive results… Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, [and] regular physical examinations.”
Gratitude itself is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives. It is linked with thankfulness and usually means acknowledging goodness in one’s life. Science is finding that it’s more than just a “half-full” mindset but has true health benefits.
“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” said Emmons. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.”
Other studies have also found that gratitude helps people to have lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol (which is linked to road rage), fewer effects of aging on the brain, improve cholesterol, have better dietary behaviors, and are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol.
Just Feeling Good?
Emmons notes that being gracious, appreciative or thankful doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s a practice.
“It is helpful to remember that it’s not really about feelings,” Emmons said. “Gratitude is a choice. We can choose to be grateful even when our emotions are steeped in hurt and resentment, or we would prefer our current life circumstances to be different.”
Gratitude as a science is more than just forcing oneself to think positively about a situation, but researchers have also linked it to thinking well of other people. One study by Phillip Watkins, a Psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that the largest boost to health came from being positively focused on other people. They showed that “keeping a diary of three blessings worked much better to boost happiness than recalling three times when a person felt a sense of pride in his own or her own accomplishments,” Live Science magazine reported.
Be More Gracious
“Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met,” wrote Harvard Medical School. “Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”
As noted, the positive effects can be far-reaching, but they can also be long-lasting. In many of the studies conducted around positive psychology, participants were asked to keep a gratitude journal daily or weekly for a period of time.
“People’s happiness kept going up after the treatment phase, and if you’re familiar with clinical psychology studies, this never happens,” Watkins said. “What we believe is happening is that it makes people look for the good in their life more, so it trains their attention to more good things.”
Ways to Develop Gratitude
Many of the studies had different methods but here are some commonalities:
- Weekly write a letter to someone who has helped you in the past and thank them. Sending the letter isn’t necessary, but physically writing the letter is.
- Make a List of at least 5 things you are grateful for weekly. Psychologists like C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky suggest to “try to get beyond things like being thankful for blueberry pancakes or scoring a good parking space this morning.” Instead, trying to think of a specific person.
- Thank someone mentally. Just thinking about someone doing something nice for you, and mentally thanking them helps.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This is a daily entry of what you are good things that happen to you that you are thankful for.
Starting around Thanksgiving when everyone is encouraged to think about what they are grateful for could be a great start to a healthier, happier, more positive lifestyle – which equates to less road rage.
“Gratitude sets off a chain reaction where people feel more compassion for others,” DeWall said. “It’s hard to beat someone up if you feel sympathetic toward them.”
Road Rage Fast Facts
A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that drivers engaged in road rage annually have these behaviors:
- 104 million drivers purposely tailgate
- 95 million drivers yell at another driver
- 91 million drivers honk to show annoyance or anger
- 67 million drivers make angry gestures at other drivers
- 49 million drivers try to block another vehicle from changing lanes
- 24 million drivers cut off another vehicle on purpose
- 8 million drivers will get out of a vehicle to confront another driver
- 6 million drivers will ram another vehicle on purpose
See the video “How to Avoid Road Rage” by the AAA http://vimeo.com/65580726