The idea of a gratitude journal is nothing new. After all, Oprah famously kept one for a full decade without fail and urged her viewers to do the same. And science has shown that placing greater emphasis on the positive aspects of life can lead to everything from reduced anxiety to improved relationships. But could thanks help heal our hearts, too?
Findings published in Psychosomatic Medicine suggest the answer is yes. Half of the study’s participants were asked to write down two or three things they felt grateful for most days of the week, while the others received their usual care. “The group that we’re looking at is pre-heart failure,” says lead author Laura Redwine, a researcher at the University of South Florida. They have a cardiovascular structural abnormality and “are at risk of getting full-blown heart failure.”
Those who took part in the journaling over a span of two months experienced improvements in sleep, mood, and heart health. By merely pondering the appreciation they have for whatever they chose to write about, these patients altered their physiology and psychology, says Paul Mills, professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego. In other words, cultivating gratitude cultivates well-being, too.
Sounds great, right? But for many, starting and sticking with this practice is easier said than done. Initially, it can be helpful to focus on whatever is making your life comfortable at that moment in time, suggests Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. This could be anything from the scent of your morning cup of joe to the reassurance of a roof over your head.
Another useful technique is to connect that goodness in your life to the people responsible for it. Did a barista serve up the coffee that’s now warming your belly? Does a partner’s hard work help keep that roof over your head?
For some, the act of setting pen or pencil to paper is a crucial part of the process. For others, digital tools like thnx4.org may work best. And if you discover that journaling just isn’t your thing, then consider alternative methods for fostering gratitude, Simon-Thomas says, like reflecting in your mind over the course of three or four deep breaths or engaging more readily in the simple act of saying “thank you” to others.
This article is featured in the May/June 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.