Give thanks for a happy heart

All too often, it’s the simple, commonsense practices which turn out to deliver genuine therapeutic benefits, with little recognition.

That’s why this latest piece of research, published by the American Psychological Association, is highly deserving of attention and should warm the cockles of all our hearts. Because what it demonstrates is the power of that elusive spiritual resource gratitude on the objective functioning of the heart.

The study examined 186 men and women, all of whom had been diagnosed with asymptomatic heart failure of at least three months duration.

Using standard psychometric testing, the researchers measured levels of ‘gratitude’ and ‘spiritual wellbeing’ and then compared these scores with subjects’ levels of fatigue, depressive symptoms, sleep quality and sense of personal effectiveness. They also measured the level of inflammatory markers known to negatively impact heart failure.

What surprised them most was the extent to which gratitude, as distinct from spiritual wellbeing, was positively correlated with the variables being measured.

Lead author Paul Mills, PhD and Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, commenting on the findings said:

“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health… It was the gratitude aspect of spirituality that accounted for those effects, not spirituality per se.” 

To deepen their understanding of the findings, subjects were then asked to write down three things for which they were grateful, every day, for eight weeks. Those who kept the diaries showed reductions in circulating levels of inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability, which is associated with reduced cardiac risk.

So gratitude is good for your heart! It makes sense that focusing on the positive aspects of life can result in improved mental and, ultimately, physical health.

Therapists treating patients with depression have long used gratitude diaries to help address the negative mindset which often overwhelms. It is also a popular recommendation among twelve-step recovery groups of the type pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

What’s special about this particular study is that it provides objective evidence of the impact of gratitude in the form of biological markers – satisfying the prevailing demands of ‘evidence-based’ medicine. All in all, extremely heartening.

Have you experienced the benefits of a systematic approach to gratitude, either for yourself or for a patient? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by Jacqui Hogan