What is it about giving thanks that makes us healthy?

In remarks made to a conference convened this summer by Cal Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), renowned gratitude expert Dr. Robert Emmons explained why giving thanks is so appealing to so many. “Gratitude has the power to heal, to energize and to change lives,” he said. More specifically, gratitude increases our emotional well-being, improves our capacity to get along with others, decreases depression and increases our resilience after suffering emotional or physical harm. What’s not to like?

Despite a slew of scientific studies on this topic, however, the jury is still out as to exactly why gratitude works so well, particularly when it comes to our health.

There’s plenty of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, indicating that maintaining an attitude of gratitude is a good call. “Every day, I get to see the powerful effects of gratitude on people in the cardiology wards and on people in our psychiatric units,” said Jeff Huffman, a psychiatrist and panelist at the GGSC conference. It’s likely, though, that a complete answer can’t be had without a careful consideration – some might say reconsideration – of gratitude’s spiritual roots.

Religious texts of every stripe are chock full of encouragement to be grateful. “Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done,” said the apostle Paul. “Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.” Years later it was Persian theologian Mevlana Rumi who said, “Giving thanks for abundance is sweeter than the abundance itself.”

But what were these guys really getting at? Was the idea to send a mental thank you note to the Divine in order to ensure you’d be invited the next party, or at least be spared eternal damnation? Possibly. A more reasonable answer might have to do with the fact that gratitude of this sort tends to draw thought closer to God, keeping it in tune with what many consider to be the source of all goodness, including our health.

A few years back, a close friend found herself hiking to the top of a nearly 18,000-foot summit in the Himalayas. When her companion began experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, the first thing that came to mind was gratitude. She knew that being thankful to God for blessings large and small could be relied on for physical relief, so she began sharing all that she had to be grateful for. Her friend soon joined in on the conversation and, before long, was hiking more comfortably and feeling much better.

While this may not be what most would consider scientific proof that a particular flavor of gratitude leads to improved health, the story does align with what Emmons describes as the three foundational stones of gratitude: looking for the good, receiving the good and sharing this good with others. This third aspect is perhaps the most interesting and even essential in that it counteracts what Emmons sees as the strongest barrier to gratitude, that is, when gratitude becomes little more than a “self-development project.”

For Mary Baker Eddy, a religious leader and gratitude researcher in her own right, it was this sense of valuing God’s blessings that was key to ensuring continued health and happiness, not simply for one’s own but for everyone’s benefit. “Are we really grateful for the good already received?” she writes in Science and Health. “Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more” – a more consistent sense of health, a deeper feeling of satisfaction, a closer connection with our fellowman.

No wonder giving thanks is so appealing to so many.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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