The Importance of Gratitude for Heart Health:
Let’s face it: amid the hustle and bustle of work, family, and social commitments, it’s easy to forget to take a moment to appreciate the good things in our lives. But research from the field of positive cardiovascular health suggests that making time for gratitude could have a positive impact on our hearts. Positive cardiovascular health is not just a trendy phrase; it is a concept that brings together positive psychology and preventive cardiology. In 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) acknowledged that psychological factors like optimism and a sense of purpose play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Among these factors, gratitude is an easy and accessible intervention that can make a difference.
What is Gratitude and How Does it Impact Cardiovascular Health?
Gratitude comes in various forms and can significantly impact cardiovascular health. Research has shown that dispositional gratitude, or a person’s general tendency to appreciate the positives in life, is linked to lower inflammation and improved endothelial function, both critical for cardiovascular health. Inflammation and endothelial function are important factors that affect the heart and blood vessels. In one study, patients with asymptomatic heart failure were asked to integrate a gratitude practice into their daily lives by noting down three to five things they appreciated each day. This simple habit led to a reduction in inflammation in just eight weeks.
Another way that gratitude benefits heart health is by buffering against stress. Stress has immediate and long-lasting consequences for our hearts, and research has shown that gratitude can help mitigate these effects. In fact, chronic, cumulative stress is associated with a 40 percent increase in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the AHA. Studies have also shown that people with high dispositional gratitude were less likely to suffer from a heart attack, and state gratitude can improve cardiovascular reaction and recovery from psychological stress.
Additionally, gratitude can lead to better social relationships, which in turn can positively impact cardiovascular health. People who are more grateful tend to have better-quality friends and relationships, leading to increased social support. Loneliness and social isolation have been reported to have a negative impact on heart health, with some studies suggesting that the effect of social relationships can be even more important than other lifestyle choices like exercise.
Dr. Claudia Hackl-Zuccarella, head of laboratory research at the Clinic for Consultant Psychiatry and Psychosomatics in the University Hospital Zurich, explains that “gratitude is often associated with various positive psychological and behavioral processes, contributing to a virtuous circle of well-being.” Grateful individuals tend to engage in health-promoting behaviors, ultimately contributing to overall well-being.
How to Cultivate Gratitude in Your Life
While some people may naturally have a greater tendency towards gratitude, it is possible to cultivate and enhance this mindset. Keeping a gratitude journal is one simple way to start integrating gratitude into your daily routine. Dr. Hackl-Zuccarella suggests taking a few minutes every evening to reflect on the day and note down three things that you’re grateful for. This practice can help shift your focus to the positive aspects of life and end the day on a positive note.
Writing gratitude letters or emails to others is another way to cultivate gratitude and benefit from increased social connection. This activity allows individuals to reflect on the good things in their lives while simultaneously strengthening their relationships with others. Dr. Stephen Gallagher, a health psychologist and professor at the University of Limerick, emphasizes that trait gratitude is influenced by our social environment and can be developed over time.
In addition to journaling and writing letters, it’s important to take time to reflect on happiness, find joy in everyday life, and consider personal achievements. These practices can help shift your mindset towards gratitude and appreciation.
Leading a Heart-Healthy Life with Gratitude
While gratitude is not a substitute for other essential cardiovascular health behaviors outlined by the AHA, such as maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise, it can certainly serve as a motivator to adopt and sustain these behaviors. In fact, research has shown that individuals with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors, contributing to their overall well-being.
In the context of a heart attack, feeling grateful for one’s health and life seems to be associated with taking on healthier behaviors that lead to greater longevity. Studies have found that individuals with higher state gratitude following a heart attack reported better adherence to medication, healthier diet choices, and engaged in more physical activity. These individuals also reported better health-related quality of life and lower rates of developing depression and anxiety.
In summary, gratitude has the potential to significantly impact heart health. Taking the time to cultivate a grateful mindset and appreciating the positives in life can lead to reduced inflammation, less stress, improved social relationships, and a greater likelihood of adopting heart-healthy behaviors. By incorporating gratitude into our daily lives, we can strive for better cardiovascular well-being.