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Ever notice how good you feel when you give or receive a thank you? It’s possible that the effect is not just mental but physical as well.
Back in the late 1990s, psychology research focused on the strengths and virtues that allow an individual to thrive and launched the modern “positive psychology” movement. Today, a growing number of medical scientists are looking at how these positive lifestyle attributes may factor in to better physical health and well-being. While the research is still in its infancy, there are initial indications that optimism, faith, hope, and, yes, gratitude, may be good for your body as well as your soul.
Much of the research specifically on gratitude and health—based on brief studies of small numbers of subjects self-reporting the effects of “gratitude exercises” like journaling—has found that people who focused daily on the things they were grateful for reported that they were happier and more optimistic overall, experienced less depression and stress, had fewer health complaints, exercised more, and slept better.
These results may have some foundation in neuroscience, where researchers are now capitalizing on the idea that the brain isn’t as rigid and inflexible as once thought. This “neuroplasticity,” the capacity of the brain to develop, change, and adapt throughout our daily lives, may offer insight into the physical power of positive thinking.
Pioneers in this area, like Alvaro Pascual-Leone, M.D., Ph.D., a leading neuroscientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, are using the latest techniques in brain imaging and noninvasive stimulation to correlate mental and emotional states with observable patterns of brain activity. Their research is providing links between the subjective ideas like happiness and spirituality and objective measurements of electrical activity in the nervous system.
While the ultimate goal is to find new therapeutic tools to treat mood and anxiety disorders, this research may also reveal strategies for protecting ourselves from age-related memory loss and cognitive decline. The trick is leading our brains in the right direction, be it as low-tech as practicing gratitude or as advanced as magnetic brain stimulation.
While the jury’s still out on whether gratitude exercises change your brain and body for the better, why not take advantage of counting your blessings anyway? For once, something that feels good may actually be good for you.