Robert Emmons, PhD. is one of the leading researchers and writers on the topic of gratitude. In his interesting book “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier” (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) Emmons includes a chapter entitled “The Embodiment of Gratitude”. He mentions several studies that support his contention that gratitude, like other emotions, is embodied, i.e. it is expressed physically as well as emotionally.
Emmons mentions an intriguing study that examined people who had suffered heart attacks. The study showed that the explanation a person has for why he or she has experienced a heart attack has serious implications for future cardiac health. These researchers asked patients to rate the degree to which various factors were responsible for their heart problems and whether or not they perceived any possible benefits, gains, or advantages from their illness. The study found that patients who blamed their heart attacks on others were more likely to suffer another heart attack within the next eight years. Those who perceived benefits and gains from an initial heart attack, including becoming more appreciative of life, had a reduced risk for subsequent heart attacks.
We have known for some time that emotions affect our physical health. Considerable research has shown that people who are anger-prone are nearly three times more likely to have a heart attack than those who are calmer. Since the practice of gratitude drives away toxic emotions such as resentment, anger and bitterness, it is not surprising that it is associated with better heart health.
Other studies have indicated that as much as seventy-five percent of longevity is related to psychological and behavioural factors. For example, chronic negative emotions (e.g. depression and pessimism) are linked with shorter life spans. Those who expect a bleak future often create that very expectation. Being optimistic and thankful seems to have the opposite effect. A study conducted at the famous Mayo Clinic found evidence that pessimists have a shorter life span than their more optimistic counterparts. In fact, in this study, people who scored high on optimism had a fifty percent lower risk of premature death – including death from heart incidents – than those who scored most strongly on pessimism.
A thankful, optimistic view of life, not only contributes to a happier life, it also contributes to a longer and healthier one. A lovely quote from Emmons’ book (p. 89) sums it up beautifully:
“For millennia, the heart has been viewed as the primary source of the spirit, the seat of the emotions, and the window to the soul. Virtually all cultures around the world use the word ‘heart’ to describe anything that is core, central, or foundational. Whoever gave us the French proverb ‘gratitude is the memory of the heart’ may have known something that experimental research is now able to verity: gratitude is the way the heart remembers.”