Research Shows Gratitude Practices Lower Inflammation
Researchers have uncovered the potential of a daily gratitude practice to heal the body and mind.
While research in the field of positive psychology has shown the clear benefits of positive attributes such as compassion and empathy, new studies suggest that gratitude may have the biggest effect of all.
Dr. Paul Mills has been studying the effects of gratitude as a professor at the University of California San Diego and as Director of Research at the Chopra Foundation.
“The way I define gratitude is, it’s a way of seeing the world with a sense of heartfulness; a sense of embracing-ness; a sense of appreciation for all that is being experienced. Typically people differentiate gratitude from thankfulness — it’s a response in exchange for something. Gratitude really, at its foundation, it’s more of a dispositional set where we walk around with gratitude for everything that’s going, just really the gift of life.”
Over the last several years, scientific studies into the psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude have grown exponentially.
“I think one of the main reasons that research on gratitude has taken off more than other areas that we typically could call positive psychology, is because the findings, the significance, in all the studies is so high and impactful. So many of the studies that have been looking at gratitude find more and more significant effects related to health and wellbeing.”
Some of the more recent studies on gratitude have focused on the physiological benefits to the heart.
“I’ve done a lot of research, with cardiac patients for example, and it was quite significant what we’ve been able to show that those patients who have more of a state of dispositional gratitude and sometimes it’s called ‘carrying around an attitude of gratitude,’ where we feel grateful for pretty much anything and everything going on — despite what it might be to other people’s eyes — that has a profound effect on these patients, they sleep better (and) they have more energy. And we found that those patients who had been doing gratitude journaling had a significant reduction in inflammatory markers in the blood. It was approximately a 23 percent reduction in five different biomarkers of reduction over a two-month period. This is a striking and amazing finding. You would never anticipate anything like that even with medication.”
Other recent studies have shown the important role gratitude plays in mental health.
“When we were studying people who have what’s called ‘Persistent Mental Disorder’ and specifically it was through their recovery process of getting better when they have a kind of acute breakdown. This included people who have depression, major anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and what we found is that gratitude as well as compassion, as well as a sense of connectedness in the world, very much supported their recovery through this process of getting over their disease and getting back to a stable state.”
Just how does gratitude exert this powerful effect?
“It provides for us a sense of connection with not only ourselves but the world around us. And when we have more of a sense of connection, we feel more at home, we feel less stressed, we feel less depressed. There have been several EEG studies looking at the frequencies of the brainwaves, and there have been some fMRI studies looking at the structure of the brain — just the functional activity of the brain — and it’s very interesting, these studies have been showing, again and again, there are differences. So, gratitude does change the behavior and activity of parts of our brain, and structurally there’s evidence for that too.”
Mills suggests gratitude journaling as a great way to build a regular practice.
“The easiest route would be (to) buy yourself a journal and begin to spend some time every day just writing down things you’re grateful for. Overtime maybe you don’t get to your journal, but maybe just stop and reflect, and have that in your mind, ‘[W]hat am I grateful for?’ That will begin to change your life, I’m convinced of it. The evidence has again and again been shown, and in my own life it’s been very transformative.”
Living With an Open Heart
There is something so undeniably beautiful when I look into the darkness and deep hours of the night, when the world around me is completely silent. Tonight, as I stare into our backyard through our moon room, I see a reflection that represents my heart. It is the light that shines from the moon, illustrating that even when there is darkness there is eternal light.
As I continue to lose myself in the glow of the moon, I feel a peace that is simple and all-knowing; all the answers are right in front of me. This reflection of silence in the night offers up my most raw truth, one that even my ego cannot deny. When I feel this truth so deeply, I want to press pause; I know that as the night blends to greet the morning sun it may, once again, be disguised by many layers. This is when I love to sit at my desk and release every ember of a thought that wants to meet paper. Sometimes it turns into a story, sometimes I feel like it may be a “Jerry McGuire moment” in the making, but right now it feels healing.
Find Your Light of Love
Deep inside all of us is a brilliant light of love. This gift of love never has to be figured out, fixed, or solved – it just is. It is when I relinquish control and completely surrender that I know I am in my truth because I am not in charge. In this moment I trust that everything is as it divinely should be. It is a true invitation to follow suit, to look at a new path regardless of any boundary I may have created for myself.
When I think back to the moments in my life when I have been entirely present, they have been when I surrendered fully, was extremely vulnerable, and didn’t worry how that vulnerability would be received. I wish every day could be this spiritually in shape, but it is because of these moments that I know there are endless possibilities. I know that I am the only person in my way, and that is extremely humbling and inspiring all at once.
A Guide for Opening & Connecting
Learn the art of mindfulness and loving kindness — the foundations for living with an open heart — in The Yogi’s Heart, a guide for opening and connecting. For it is only when you approach life from a place of openness can you embody connectedness with all things.
It is not easy to be raw in our everyday lives. We don’t like to see ourselves vulnerable, even when the world around us whispers that we are safe. We have been taught to always have it together, have it all figured out, separate ourselves from the pack, and, most importantly, be successful by a societal standard. We actually get angry when we believe others are not living life the “right way.” However, after we strip away all the insecurities and boundaries, it is easy to realize we are all craving the same thing – unconditional love, understanding, and compassion. We are begging for someone to throw us a rope when the rope is already present.
This space of love exceeds all limiting beliefs of religion, race, and class. It is a platform that seats our soul as we share the message. We all want to be loved and accepted for who we really are in our soul. We want those around us to understand that we are doing our best even if it goes unnoticed in the eyes of another. We want the world to understand our experiences have shaped who we are. We secretly beg for others to meet us where we stand with compassion and kindness, but unfortunately, this gets misunderstood in our fanfare of costumes and roles.
I don’t believe anyone would consciously admit he or she judges another to make his or her experiences more justified, or that we choose to make decisions based on what others think is the right way. But sometimes, we get caught in the crossfire. We judge others because we are trying to build our own story. We try to identify how we are different to still the voice that has been trained to see this as an opportunity to be better. We use all kinds of boundaries to shape how we have it right and others have it wrong. Here’s the simple answer: we ALL have the gift of light inside of us. No one is EVER more ahead than another; it is not a line we travel but a cycle that has no beginning or end. When we release and surrender, the boundaries wash away. What is left is a light of raw, unconditional love that was always present.
Embrace What Is
The biggest question becomes how do we live in this light? How do we let go of the boundaries the ego has created? In this moment of living truth it goes beyond an answer. It just is.
God, a higher power, the Universe – whatever you have named your light is pure love. It is a space that has no conditions or power. It is a space that doesn’t care if you are a lawyer or doctor, rich or poor, mean or kind, or if you think you have it all figured out. This space doesn’t care if you think you are a better parent than another, have it more together, or if you’ve had it harder and no one understands. Most importantly, this space doesn’t care if you think love is a word hippies use to justify their disconnection from the world or if this word is so powerful you can’t say it at all. The best part is that this space is always here for you, just as the sun is always burning brightly no matter what the day may suggest. This space is limitless without boundaries or conditions; it is the most powerful space.
What I know is that in the moments of my imperfect thoughts, I feel this space and I know that every breath presents an opportunity to leave the old behind and build from this source of love. We can choose to go there in moments while we chip away at the boundaries, or we can jump in with both feet. No matter which way you choose to shift, this space will always be waiting for you. I use this thought every day to elicit compassion for myself. I use the mantra I lean on love. I use every opportunity to peel back more layers of myself. As I do, I begin to see the levels of attachment I and others have in the roles I play. I have to completely let go and know that my heart is full of love. This means no longer trying to justify where I am coming from, no longer being afraid of how others will receive me, and no longer trying to define my life. It means living in the present moment. I can’t give myself a better gift.
Take pause, close your eyes, and listen to your heart. This space of love is always present. It doesn’t take prayer or asking for guidance to get there. It is just a matter of listening.
Peace to you in your journey!