Being grateful seems to have a lot of positive effects on our lives. In fact, grateful people may have better sleep, healthier hearts, and fewer aches and pains.
But what is going on in our bodies when we’re grateful, that might help us be healthier? A couple of recent studies aimed to find out.
In the first study, 61 healthy women between the ages of 35 and 50 were randomly assigned to either a six-week online gratitude activity or a writing activity (as a comparison). Once a week, the gratitude group were given a writing prompt that asked them to write about someone they were grateful for (for example, “Think of someone in your life who you feel like you have never fully or properly thanked for something meaningful or important that they did for you”). The control group wrote about neutral topics (“Think about the longest distance that you walked today”).
Before and after the six weeks, the participants reported on how much they tended to offer support or receive support from other people and provided a blood sample, which was used to check for the presence of inflammatory cytokines (interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor-α). Inflammatory cytokines are linked to chronic diseases of aging, like diabetes, atherosclerosis, and even cancer.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that women assigned to the gratitude condition did engage in more supportive care, which is consistent with the idea that gratitude may inspire people to “pay it forward” and help others. But they didn’t find any significant drop in cytokine levels—meaning, no improved immune function. Naomi Eisenberger, director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab at UCLA and a coauthor on the study, was a little surprised by this.
“You read all the news stories about gratitude and you assume you’re going to see these magical beneficial effects. We didn’t see that,” she said. “The effects were actually harder to see than we thought; they were subtler.”
To get at what might be going on, she and her colleagues looked women’s supportiveness, whether or not they’d participated in the gratitude activity. Here they did see an effect: Women who engaged in more supportive care had lower levels of interleukin 6, suggesting that supportive care (and not gratitude, per se) might improve immune function. Gratitude could affect inflammation, perhaps, but only if it leads to more support for others.
“When people feel grateful, one of the first things they want to do is give back,” she says. “Maybe that doesn’t lead straight to better immune function. But it does lead to more support-giving, and that’s interesting.”
Is gratitude good for our brains?
These findings still left an open question for the researchers: Could experiencing gratitude affect people’s brains in a way that promotes better health? To find out, Eisenberger and her colleagues did a second study looking at how gratitude affected brain centers associated with support-giving and responding to distress, both of which are tied to better health.
Drawing from the same participants, they used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity while the women were shown names of people they felt grateful for and asked to either think about why they felt grateful to the person or to describe the person’s physical appearance. Occasionally, an image of a threatening face was flashed on the screen to startle participants and induce a threat response.
Participants experiencing gratitude didn’t have more neural activity in the caregiving centers of the brain than the control group. But those who’d reported high levels of support-giving had a healthier response to the threatening imagery (decreased amygdala activity) after focusing on gratitude. In other words, for highly supportive people, feeling momentary gratitude seemed to play a role in soothing their stress response—a possible pathway to better health.
“There seems to be something about people engaging in more support-giving over time that makes them less threat-sensitive when primed with gratitude,” says Eisenberger.
This finding mirrors previous work showing that volunteering or giving to others improves health, says Eisenberger. On the other hand, it contrasts with some people’s views that feeling gratitude in and of itself is key to better health, she adds.
“Our study brings up an interesting question of what contributes to better health: Is it the emotion of gratitude, or is it actually engaging in behaviors that help somebody else?” she says. “I don’t know for sure, but maybe it’s tied to behaviors more than to feelings.”
She also mentions that some of the people in her studies reported having trouble feeling grateful. That could be a barrier when it comes to promoting gratitude for improving health.
“These effects didn’t seem to happen for individuals who were higher in things like depression and stress,” she says. “So, I think for those individuals, a gratitude intervention can sometimes backfire.”
Though Eisenberger believes much more research needs to be done to know for sure, her work shows that the effects of gratitude on health may be more nuanced than past research suggests. It doesn’t mean gratitude doesn’t play a role—after all, it seems to encourage more kind and helpful behavior. But it may only play an indirect role.
“If we’re trying to take care of our own health, maybe the best way to do that is helping take care of others,” says Eisenberger. “One way to getting to helping other people could be through experiences of gratitude. But it’s not necessarily the only way to get there, either.”