You might be surprised to learn that one of the most powerful healing forces in medicine is found within all of us. This healing force is known as gratitude.
Gratitude is defined as the state of being grateful or thankful. It is an appreciation for receiving personal benefit that was not sought after. The effect of being grateful can improve physical, psychological and even spiritual health. Best of all, it's free.
I recently read an article by two psychologists, one from the University of California -- Davis and the other from Yale, on the topic of gratitude as a psychotherapeutic tool. This paper was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, this year. It was a review on the effect of gratitude on physical and mental health. The amount of research in this area is surprisingly large and equally surprisingly positive.
Gratitude is basically being appreciative of things, events and relationships in our lives. Is not being a "Pollyanna" optimist. It is simply being grateful for life itself. Many people will say that they are grateful; however the daily practice of gratitude is not part of their makeup. People who practice gratitude, on a daily basis, are actually healthier than people who do not practice gratefulness.
A number of medical studies have shown that the regular practice of gratitude lowers blood pressure. It also improves many parameters of immune function as well as increasing happiness and overall well-being. Some data suggest a reduced lifetime risk of depression and anxiety. In addition, the risk of substance abuse, both alcohol and drugs, are reduced in people who are grateful. The practice of gratefulness accelerates healing and may reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
There really are two important components of gratitude: seeing the positive aspects of one's life and; recognizing that many of these positive aspects are outside of one's control. People who are grateful on a regular basis also experience other positive emotions, and these emotions are more intense and more frequent. Joy, happiness and love seem to be the constant companions of grateful people. The concept of gratitude is an integral part of all the major religions in this world. From Judaism to Christianity to Islam to Buddhism, gratitude is a foundation stone. Grateful people also feel less envy, greed and bitterness, and reducing envy, greed and bitterness is a very positive step to good health.
Gratitude in young adults may possibly impact performance in school, as well as social interactions. Grateful young adults are more alert and enthusiastic. They have more energy and focus and, as with adults, more happiness and joy in their lives.
The consistent practice of gratitude results in lower stress levels and lower stress always improves health. My suggestion: five minutes a day, list all of those things for which you are grateful and do this every day. After one month you will be surprised at your transformation physically, mentally and even spiritually.
• Patrick Massey MD, Ph.D., is the medical director for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village.