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33

Happier, Longer Life?

Try Some Gratitude

By Morgan Baker

Do you want to live longer, specifically 7.5 years longer? Try a little gratitude, suggests psychologists.

“I do believe the figure for extended life is accurate, but the effect is indirect. We know that happy people, generous people, people who are religiously involved, and people who do not smoke, live longer (avg 7 yrs) than unhappy, no religion, smoke, and non-generous,” Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at The University of California, Davis, and author of many books, including The Little Book of Gratitude: Create a life of happiness and wellbeing by giving thanks, writes in an email.

Psychologists say being grateful is not only good for your mental health, contributing to your happiness, it’s good for your physical health as well. By putting a little gratefulness in your daily life, you will become a happier person and happy people have stronger immune systems. Studies have even shown cardiovascular disease declines in happier people.

Some people already are grateful and happy and may even have the optimism gene built into their personalities. They toast the world with their half-full glasses. They are already grateful for the sun coming up or the dinner they had with a friend.

But where does that leave the rest of us? Psychologists recommend adding gratefulness into our lives for the small and big things in life – such as a walk with your dog, or your life in general. Gratefulness leads to happiness often leads to optimism, say experts.

Learning to be grateful often starts in childhood, thanking friends and family for the birthday and holiday gifts you received. But it’s more than that, it’s being taught to be grateful for nature and activities and people, not just big splashy presents.

Emmons notes there is a difference between being “grateful to” and “grateful for” different events, people or objects in your life. “Gratitude by its very nature is an external focus. It’s about receiving a gift or benefit from a source out there,” he says.

In being grateful to someone we focus on what they have done for us, which, Emmons says, makes us feel supported and safe. Gratitude to inspires us to give back; gratitude for does not, but is just as important. Both contribute to gratitude in general.

Healthy and Happy

Being grateful, leads to happiness, says Philip Watkins, Professor of Psychology at University of East Washington. “If you experience gratitude, it’s one of the top predictors for how happy you will be,” he says. And happiness is good for us. It is good for our relationships – it can help bond new relationships and improves existing ones. Happiness is good for our general social well-being. People like being around grateful people, they don’t much care for hanging around ungrateful people.

“Miserable people are a misery to be around,” says Emmons.

Happy people also tend to take better care of themselves, eating healthier and getting regular exercise, says Catherine Sanderson, professor of Psychology at Amherst College and author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health & Longevity. A negative attitude can lead to a weaker immune system and illness, she says.

Gratefulness can also lead to optimism and a positive way of looking at the world, says Sanderson. Basically, it encourages you to be the glass half full person.

Emmons says they can co-occur. Gratitude, he says is about the past and present, and optimism is about the future. “They play separate, complementary roles in our overall happiness levels,” he says.

Watkins says it’s easier to be grateful in good times, but being grateful in hard times is really important. If the political climate is upsetting or something personal is difficult, that’s when it’s time to work hard at gratitude. This is when you pull out the tricks. Think about what you are grateful for and it may help you get out of your funk.

Being positive, says Sanderson, helps you respond to stressors and makes it easier to move forward, and you’ll have a stronger friend network from which to gain support.

Watkins says that after 9/11 people experienced more gratitude than before. “Death forces you to look at things…Life is a gift, you’re not entitled to it,” he says. You can train your brain, through the exercises to be a happier brain, he says, and the benefits are long term. Your health and happiness will improve and stay that way.

Spirituality

One of the myths that Emmons debunks is the notion that you have to be religious or spiritual to be grateful.

Rick Spalding, a Presbyterian pastor who recently retired as Chaplain at Williams College in Massachusetts, says, however, asking yourself the question “What are you grateful for” can be the first step into the spiritual life.

Spalding often asks people at the early stages of exploring their spiritual lives, ‘What are you doing with your gratitude?’ Once you start thinking about that,” he says, “you’re off and running. It is, really, a wonderful way to live.”

“Gratitude,” writes Spalding in an email, “comes from the deepest, deepest places in us.  It wells up like an underground spring – which is part of what often connects it to the sense of the mysterious, the numinous, that many people associate with the sacred.”

Like other experts, he says you can be grateful “to” someone or something, but you can also be grateful “for” something. In that case, gratitude comes from experiences like joy, admiration, growth or inspiration. There doesn’t have to be a destination.  

Spalding says whether he is grateful for joy at being alive or a sunset, he has given that place “a simple, short-hand name, just as a place-holder: I call it ‘God’”.

Putting Gratitude Into Your Life

Watkins surmises that older people in general are more grateful for their lives because they recognize that the end is nearing, but you can train your brain, he says to look for the things to be grateful for and not take for granted.

Emmons says, “Watch your language.” Grateful people use language which includes words such as “gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate and abundance.” Those less grateful use other negative words. So ask yourself in any given situation, “What is the gift in this situation?” suggests Emmons. This can redirect your thought processes.

Make a list of what you typically take for granted. Or Emmons suggests, consider what your life would be like without this person/event/circumstance in it. “This is known as addition via subtraction,” he says.

Don’t compare yourself to others, says Sanderson.

Finally, identify your non-grateful thoughts, such as thinking you deserve better, that other people are better off than you, that things haven’t turned out the way you wanted, or FOMO and toss them out the window.

Smiling doesn’t hurt either. Sanderson says being grateful is the cognitive side to being happy, while smiling is the behavioral side. Experiments show that you experience less pain when you’re smiling. And smiling is contagious. Even if you don’t feel like it, smile.

According to Emmons, “the essence of gratitude is that it is a key element in the powerful human capacity for resilience. Gratitude can alter our gaze. We begin to see opportunities where we once saw problems, we begin to see abundance where we once saw deficits, we begin to see blessings where we once saw curses. Life changing and life-affirming. Gratitude is the truest approach to life.”

“Recognize life is precious,” Watkins says. “It’s valuable, and it’s a gift.”


About the Writer

Morgan Baker is the Managing Editor for the Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. What’s next? A move to Hawaii. Her work can be found in Cognoscenti, Motherwell, The Boston Globe and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, among other publications. She can be reached at mbaker@thebucket.com

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