Gratitude is medicine

November 29, 2012

Michael R. Mantell

Yep, that's right. Gratitude is medicine. You may have seen the "Exercise is Medicine" campaign offered up in November 2007 by exerciseismedicine.org, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Medical Association, and supported by many health and fitness organizations, notably among them the American Council on Exercise.

The goal of this initiative has been to make physical activity and exercise a routine part of disease prevention and medical treatment. What more can assure better living than healthier, fit, and happier lives? No pill, no strict diet regimen are needed: It's simply gratitude.

This dose of medicine requires a daily moment or two of your time. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California at Davis, and the Universities of Michigan, Utah, Illinois and Kentucky, in particular, have demonstrated that people who are deeply thankful, count their blessings, notice the simple joys of daily life, and acknowledge everything they have in positive ways, engage in healthier behaviors and generally take better care of themselves. This extends to exercising more regularly, eating more wisely, and visiting their physicians for regular physical examinations as needed.

After all, grateful people see the world filled with abundance, train their view on what can go right in life, see the gift of life as always offering rich possibilities and as a result have greater peace of mind. Ungrateful people are burdened with a perspective that keeps them looking at what's missing or can go wrong "“ with a feeling of deprivation.

In his 2007 book, "Thanks: How the Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier," Robert Emmons reported on his well-known study that found that people who keep a daily journal listing five things they feel grateful for each day report being 25 percent happier than those who don't. The gratitude group also reported fewer physical symptoms and exercised more, which of course are related. The benefits of focusing, daily, on gratitude extend to the mental and physical areas of life.

Writing down your grateful thoughts is also a terrific sleeping pill. In his research, Emmons found that those who do "get more hours of sleep each night, spend less time awake before falling asleep, and feel more refreshed upon awakening." Sure beats a pill!

The optimism associated with gratitude is being looked at as a link to a healthier immune system and as an aid to those with already compromised health. In a recent study of law students facing stress, those who were more optimistic had more immune system protective blood cells than those who were pessimistic in the face of similar stress. Emmons noted, "In several studies, depression has been shown to be inversely related to gratitude. The more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. The more depressed a person is, the less likely they are to go around feeling thankful for life."

A daily dose of spending a few minutes jotting down five things for which you are grateful, developing the sense of abundance, appreciating others and the simple pleasures of life while avoiding a sense of entitlement and envy, all go a long way to adding health, happiness and wellness to your life.

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. is the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as a behavioral psychology consultant to many fitness industry organizations including IHRSA, Total Gym, Dimension One Hot Tubs, AARP, and Les Mills. He is the Chief Behavioral Scientist for Anytime Fitness gyms and a member of the Sports Medicine Team at the Sporting Club of San Diego/La Jolla. In addition to his frequent interviews in national health and fitness magazines, and weekly TV segments, he maintains a private behavioral science coaching practice in La Mesa, California for clients for emotional wellness, fitness and health related issues.

Originally published Nov 29, 2012 10:00:37 AM.