Healthy Choices

Gratitude is good for health, research shows

For Javid Patel, giving thanks is part of his morning routine. Like making the bed, the Elk Grove chef and martial arts teacher said he sees counting blessings as a necessary step to starting a good day.

This Thanksgiving he will do his usual meditation before spending time with family and doing some volunteer work.

“Thanksgiving is a great time of year because it allows you to focus on the things that you’re grateful for like family, and food, and living in this nation,” said Patel, 34. “But it should also help us to realize that we can continue that on throughout the year.”

As millions of Americans gather around Thanksgiving tables to share grateful thoughts this holiday, research suggests they make a regular practice of it to improve physical and emotional well-being in the long run.

Robert Emmons, a UC Davis psychology professor and one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, has published numerous studies over the past decade showing that people who incorporate thankfulness into their daily lives see a wide range of health benefits, including less stress and anxiety, better sleep and stronger immune systems.

He co-directs the Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude program, launched in 2011 as a collaboration between UC Davis and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which studies the the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being.

Gratitude reduces the output of stress hormones, including cortisol, a hormone associated with depression, during challenges and crises, said Emmons in an email. It also has been linked to the release of positive hormones, such as oxytocin from the pituitary gland, which helps strengthen social bonds.

“Research has shown that when we think about someone or something we really appreciate and experience the feeling that goes with the thought, the parasympathetic (calming-branch) of the autonomic nervous system is triggered,” Emmons said. “There is a new generation of gratitude researchers out there who are examining the health effects of gratitude. Some of the findings are really amazing.”

During a 10-week Emmons study in which one group of subjects kept a daily list of things they were grateful for and another kept a list of things that displeased them, those in the gratitude condition reported being 25 percent happier than their counterparts. They had fewer health complaints, got better sleep, and spent an average of 11/2 more hours per week exercising than those in the other group.

Another study showed that the electromagnetic heart patterns of volunteers became more coherent and ordered when they experienced feelings of appreciation and gratefulness, said Emmons, who has written several books on the science of gratitude, including “Gratitude Works!” released in 2013.

Keeping a daily gratitude journal is one piece of advice Emmons gives those looking to become more thankful, along with meditation techniques, new ways of speaking and the practice of thank-you letters. Thnx4.org, an initiative of the Greater Good center, provides a digital space for people to anonymously catalog gratitude. The “Gratitude Journal” iPhone application encourages users to write down five things they are grateful for every day.

Dawn Spurrier, founder of online art boutique Gratitude Hearts, said practicing gratitude has helped her maintain her health over the past few years as she’s battled lupus and a muscular connective tissue disorder. Now, in hopes of educating others about the mental, physical and emotional benefits of gratitude, she makes heart-shaped stones, beads and other gifts in her downtown apartment, which she sells online and at craft fairs throughout the Sacramento region.

The art pieces can serve as physical tokens to remind people to think grateful thoughts during stressful times, she said.

“When I’m in a situation when I’m sad or upset or feeling negative, if I make myself make an effort to think about gratitude, that almost always fixes everything – and really fast,” she said. “It’s tough even for me to be grateful all the time. Humans forget, and we need to be reminded.”

Kimmara Mooney, 29, lost her newborn child earlier this month. She said it took daily prayer and a lot of focus on gratitude to keep her going. This Thanksgiving, she will go to her church to show thanks and learn to take things day by day.

“I’m shocked that I was able to persevere and deal with the hurt and pain,” she said. “It really makes you realize what you have, and that you never know when things are going to change. You have to be grateful for whatever is left.”

Jean Grieve, an 85-year-old Elk Grove resident, said she will spend this Thanksgiving expressing gratitude to her grandchildren and other family who take care of her.

“It’s wonderful that they do these things when they don’t have to,” she said. “I’m just thankful to still be alive at my age.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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