Can Your Mindset Affect Your Health? How Gratitude Boosts Your Immune System, Improves Heart Health, and More

New research is providing mounting evidence that gratitude has a major impact on physical and mental health. What is gratitude? In short, gratitude is being thankful—noticing and appreciating the positive things in life. 

Gratitude promotes optimism and happiness, but it can also provide important health benefits. 

Gratitude Improves Heart Health 

Recent studies suggest that gratitude could help improve heart health in people with cardiovascular disease. Researchers observed the effects of journaling gratitude on the health of patients diagnosed with heart failure. In this study, participants were randomly given a journal and asked to write two to three things they felt grateful for every day for eight weeks. Participants who journaled continued to receive their normal treatment. 

Laboratory testing of patients who participated in gratitude journaling showed a reduction of inflammation and an increase in heart rate variability (HRV) compared to patients who did not journal. Inflammation contributes to heart failure. HRV refers to the variation in time intervals between heartbeats and is an important indicator of heart health. Contrary to what most people may think, a healthy heart does not beat with perfectly timed variations between each beat. Instead, it beats at different intervals with variations of milliseconds. These variations are indicative of a healthy heart. Heart failure leads to a loss of HRV, meaning that there is less variation in these time intervals.

Gratitude Boosts the Immune System

Gratitude promotes optimism, a characteristic that has been proven to strengthen the immune system. One study observed the effects of optimism (expecting that good things rather than bad things will happen) among first-year law students. The results of this study found that when first-year law students were optimistic, and had relocated away from previous relationships and commitments, they experienced an increase in CD4+T cells (a type of immune cell that helps regulate the immune system) and an overall stronger reaction of the immune system.

Gratitude Helps Improve Mental Health 

Gratitude writing can help improve mental health in adults. One study observed the effects of gratitude writing on mental health. For this study, nearly 300 adults participated (most of whom were college students) who reported low mental health and were seeking psychotherapy. Patients were placed in one of three categories: a) therapy only, b) therapy with expressive writing (the patient’s thoughts and feelings), c) and therapy with gratitude writing (expressing gratitude to others). Patients who participated in gratitude writing in addition to therapy reported significant improvements in mental health, even 12 weeks after completing the writing exercise, compared to patients in the other two groups.

How Can You Incorporate Gratitude Into Your Day? 

A gratitude practice only requires a few minutes a day. Here are some ideas to help you get started practicing gratitude:

  • Journal 3 things that you’re grateful for every day. You can also add why you’re grateful for these things.
  • Each day, or anytime you have a thought of gratitude, write something that you’re grateful for on a piece of paper and place it in a jar. At the end of each week, month, or even at the end of the year, take them out and read what you wrote.
  • Write a gratitude letter to someone who helped you during a time of need, and express how thankful you are for them. It’s not necessary to send the letter. 
  • Share your gratitude with others. This can be as simple as saying “thank you” to someone who does something nice for you or giving someone a compliment.