Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude is Good for our Health

I've been thinking a lot about gratitude. It's not just a Thanksgiving thing for me. It's something I  try to think about every day.  Especially now, with so many people in New York and New Jersey still being displaced from their homes, and with family, friends and colleagues in Israel living with the daily threat of rocket attacks, I am extremely grateful for things I usually take for granted--having a roof over my head and no imminent threats to my safety.

Gratitude is a part of most spiritual traditions, it is a big part of twelve step programs, and it has been incorporated into a number of psychotherapy approaches, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Positive Psychotherapy (PPT), and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP).  However, until the last decade, nobody really studied its impact. 

At the Emmons Lab at UC Davis, Dr. Robert Emmons and his colleagues are studying the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential impact for human health and well-being.  They are currently  developing methods to cultivate gratitude in daily life and assess gratitude’s effect on well-being, and developing a measure to reliably assess individual differences in dispositional gratefulness.

Their studies  indicate that  people who adopt a daily gratitude practice have greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, better sleep duration and sleep quality, and higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to control groups that focused on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).

Those who kept weekly gratitude journals  exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). The researchers also noticed that participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important goals over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.

Twelve step programs talk about developing an attitude of gratitude.  In DBT, one of the distraction techniques is to make comparisons between one's current situation and a situation that's worse. In PPT, the "gratitude visit," in which a person makes an appointment to read a gratitude letter to the recipient, has been found to cause happiness levels to go up for a full month.

In AEDP, the healing affects refer to gratitude toward another and feeling moved.  The healing affects have contrast embedded in them. They arise in response to experiences that disconfirm expectations, i.e., experiences of contact where isolation was before, of kindness when indifference or malice were expected, of being taken seriously rather than being dismissed. AEDP’s healing affects are transformative precisely because such a positive attachment experience was inconsistent or absent in the past. Explicitly processing these newly restored reparative intersubjective moments accesses resources and resilience, and releases a cascade of transformations that leads to what is known as core state, when one is filled with "empathy and self-empathy, wisdom, clarity about one’s subjective truth, and generosity" and feels "open and having a sense of being grounded, solid, in flow, and at ease."*

I was moved to tears when I saw all the devastation in beach towns in New York and New Jersey and heard about tragic deaths from Hurricane Sandy and again when I read about the heroism of first responders and the generosity of countless others after the storm.  I worry about the escalating conflict in the Middle East and pray for the safety of my loved ones and everyone else who lives there. My heart goes out to all those who have been affected by both of these tragedies.  May you all regain your sense of safety and security.  I am not taking mine for granted.


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